Aristotle: Nicomachean Ethics Summary and Analysis
Ethical virtues are acquired by habituation; they do not arise in us from birth, but we by nature have the capacity to receive and perfect them. A good government attempts to legislate such that it helps to habituate its citizens to act virtuously. The way to become habituated in virtue is to perform virtuous actions beginning from one's early youth.
Statements prescribing virtue cannot be precise because the action must be proper to the occasion. Virtue is to be found in the mean between extremes of vice. If a virtue truly becomes a habit, acting according to that virtue will be pleasant. Right education should make us take pleasure in what is good and be pained by what is bad.
Some will question how virtue can be acquired by habit because to acquire the virtue a person will already need to act virtuously in order to become habituated to it. Yet to act virtuously and to be virtuous are different things. Being virtuous requires three things: 1) that a person knows what he is doing, b) that he intends to do what is he is doing and that he intends it for its own sake, and c) that he acts with certainty and firmness.
Virtues and vices are not feelings. They are not acquired without deliberate choice. Neither are they powers, because we possess powers by nature. Virtues are habits.
Virtue is what makes a thing perform its function well, so the virtue of a man is the habit from which he becomes good. Virtue is a mean between two extremes, and the specific mean will depend on the person. Ethical virtue is concerned with feelings and actions. It is necessary to have the right feelings at the right times for the right things and for the right purposes. A person can err by going toward either excess or deficiency.
Ethical virtue "is a habit disposed toward action by deliberate choice, being at the mean relative to us, and defined by reason as a prudent man would define it." Some actions or feelings are simply bad, such as maliciousness, envy, adultery, theft and murder.
Actions deal with particulars, so it necessary to consider the virtues specifically. The mean between fear and rashness is bravery. With regard to pleasures and pains, the mean is temperance. With regard to property the mean is munificence or generosity. With regard to honor and dishonor, the mean is magnanimity, the excess is vanity and the deficiency is low-mindedness. With regard to anger, the mean is good temper, and the extremes are irascibility and inirascibility. The mean between boastfulness and self-depreciation is truth. The mean between buffoonery and boorishness is wit. The mean between complaisance or flattery and quarrelsomeness is friendliness. A sense of shame is not a virtue. Righteous indignation is a mean between envy and malicious gladness.
The person at either extreme of vice thinks that the virtuous person is at an extreme. A rash man, for example, thinks a brave man is a coward. Of the two vices on either extreme of virtue, one of them is more directly opposed to the virtue, while the other is merely a deficiency or excess. For example, cowardice is actually opposed to bravery, while rashness is an excess of bravery.
It is difficult to be virtuous. A person aiming at the mean should avoid the vice which is more directly contrary to the mean, and also take into account the vices to which we are more inclined. It is necessary to guard against pleasure, because pleasure cannot be judged impartially.
Aristotle identifies ethical virtue as "a habit, disposed toward action by deliberate choice, being at the mean relative to us, and defined by reason as a prudent man would define it" (1107a). A crucial distinction exists between being virtuous and acting virtuously. To qualify as virtuous, one must not merely act virtuously, but also know he is acting virtuously, intend to do what he does for its own sake, and act with certainty and firmness (1105b). Acting virtuously, however, is the primary means to becoming virtuous. For, according to Aristotle, "virtues arise in us neither by nature nor contrary to nature; but by our nature we can receive them and perfect them by habituation" (1103a).
The necessity of forming good habits in order to become virtuous leads Aristotle to consider law and education as crucial means of making the citizens virtuous. While the details regarding law-making are reserved for The Politics, in Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle provides an explanation of why good laws are necessary to form virtuous citizens. By setting certain minimal standards of conduct, the law provides the requisite amount of coercion essential for inducing a man to conquer his passions and to act virtuously. As Aristotle states, "It is difficult for one to be guided rightly towards virtue from an early age unless he is brought up under such [i.e., right] laws; for a life of temperance and endurance is not pleasant to most people, especially the young. For these reasons, the nurture and pursuits of the young should be regulated by laws, for when they become habitual they are not painful" (11079b).
Through virtuous action, one will then realize the natural pleasure concomitant in virtue, and begin to become truly virtuous. Therefore "we should be brought up from our early youth in such a way as to enjoy and be pained by the things we should" (1104b). Yet laws are necessary not only for the young, but for all people. Aristotle points out toward the end of the book that "laws would be needed for man's entire life, for most people obey necessity rather than argument, and penalties rather than what is noble" (1179b).
One may argue that it is not the responsibility of the city to make laws encouraging citizens to act virtuously, but rather that moral education belongs more properly to an individual household. Yet in Aristotle's view, "virtue must be a care for every city," because "the city exists not only for the sake of living but rather primarily for the sake of living well" (Politics 1280bl). In addition, virtuous citizens are necessary for the city's stability and security. Although Aristotle does not deny the important role of parental guidance, he asserts that while "parental command possesses neither strength nor necessity, . . . the law has compelling power" (1180a).
If one does not acquire the proper habits, the most eloquent attempts to persuade and exhort him to become virtuous will simply fall on deaf ears. Aristotle implies this idea in his choice of a virtuous audience for the Nicomachean Ethics. The philosopher states that "he who is to listen effectively to lectures concerning noble and just things . . . should be brought up well in ethical habits." Without having experienced the natural pleasure of virtue, one will simply not understand Aristotle's arguments. Law is therefore necessary because it forces one to act virtuously, thereby making virtue's pleasantness apparent from experience and allowing one to understand the intrinsic choiceworthiness of virtuous action.
Yet though law is necessary, it is inherently insufficient as a means of generating true virtuousness. After all, virtue requires that one perform noble actions for their own sake with certainty and firmness, and be aware of the nobility of the action. In addition, a truly virtuous person will take pleasure in acting virtuously. Obviously, law, in the specific sense of the word, cannot go beyond merely forcing one to act virtuously. Expanding the meaning of law to include the education which the regime provides, however, greatly broadens its efficacy. For once law has begun to habituate a person to acting virtuously, education can provide a means to learn the reasons why moral actions are choiceworthy in themselves. Law, then, prepares an audience to understand ethical teachings by assuring that they will have experienced virtuous action, thereby opening their minds to the persuasion of reason.
Both laws and education fall short, however, in leading people to true virtue. For virtue "is a kind of moderation, having the mean as its aim," yet "this is neither just one thing nor the same for everyone" (1106b). As an example, Aristotle points out that in deciding proportions of food, the specific needs and circumstances of the individual must be taken into account. An athlete, for instance, obviously needs to eat more than a sedentary man does. In deciding what is virtuous, one must likewise find a mean specific to oneself, though for all this mean lies between the same two extremes of vice. The deficiency of laws, then, lies in their universal nature. One simply cannot make laws which specifically dictate the mean proper to each person; a law can only provide a broad and general guideline. Education, though more informative than law, is similarly inadequate. While education can provide more detailed, particularized instruction and can also refine the student's reason to aid him in choosing the correct mean, the individual can only find the mean through trial and error in the experiences of his own life. The virtue which one must develop in order to attain moral virtue and to find the correct mean in all of one's actions is prudence, which is discussed in further detail in Chapter Six.
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