Aristotle: Nicomachean Ethics Summary and Analysis
The next virtue we will discuss is generosity, which is a mean with regard to property. Wastefulness is an excess while stinginess is a deficiency. It is proper to the generous man to give to whom he should.
A generous man will give to the right person, the right amounts and at the right times. And he will do this with pleasure or at least without pain. A generous man will also take from the right sources, not asking for things from others but taking them from his own possessions. He will also take proper care of his possessions. Generosity does not depend on the quantity of the giving but on the habit of the giver, which takes into account the amount which the giver himself has and is able to give away.
The wasteful man errs in that he exceeds in giving but is deficient not taking, and stingy man is deficient in giving but exceeds in taking. Wastefulness is less of a vice than stinginess, because it is more likely to be cured naturally by age and by lack of resources. A wasteful man is not evil, but simply foolish.
The next virtue to be discussed is munificence, which is giving in large amounts for suitable occasions. The deficiency of this virtue is called meanness and the excess is ostentation. A munificent man spends gladly and lavishly, not calculating costs, but always for a noble purpose.
It would be foolish for a poor man to try to be munificent, because he doesn't have the necessary means and it would not be suitable for him.
A man who is in excess in this regard consumes conspicuously to show off his wealth and gain admiration, not for noble purposes.
Magnanimity, or high-mindedness, is also concerned with great things. A magnanimous man claims and deserves great honors. Someone who deserves honors but doesn't claim them is low-minded, and someone who claims honors but doesn't deserve them is vain. It is better to be vain than low-minded, because vanity will be naturally corrected by life experience. A magnanimous man is great in each of the virtues, and is a sort of ornament of virtues because he shows how good a virtuous life is. A magnanimous man is concerned with honors, but not overly so. He is pleased with honors bestowed on him by virtuous men, but realizes that no honor equals the worth of his virtue.
Good luck is thought to contribute to high-mindedness, but only a good man should be truly honored. A high-minded man does not expose himself to danger unnecessarily but faces danger for a great cause and in such a case is not sparing of even his life. A magnanimous man does not receive services from others or ask for help, but is always ready to help others. A high-minded man will speak what he thinks because he cares for truth more than reputation. He will not be inclined to admiration, bear grudges, or indulge in personal conversation and will not speak evil even of his enemies except when he is insulted.
The man who is deficient with regard to this virtue is low-minded and the one who exceeds is vain.
The next virtue concerns honor, specifically small and medium honors. It is a mean between too much and too little ambition which can be described as right ambition.
The virtue that is a mean with respect to anger is good temper. The excesses are irascibility or bitterness. If one is irascible he gets angry quickly and retaliates but then forgets about it. Someone who is bitter holds anger for a long time. A good tempered man is one who becomes angry on the right occasions, with the right people, at the right time and for the right length of time. A deficiency of anger is blameworthy because it is akin to slavishness, but excesses of anger are more common than deficiencies.
The next virtue can be described as friendliness [although Aristotle does not give it an official name]. There are two extreme types of people: those who are quarrelsome and those who are obsequious and flattering. A friendly person is amiable not only to his friends and without regard to whether he likes or dislikes a person. He won't join in dishonorable pleasures and disapproves of pleasures that give harm to the agent.
The mean between boastfulness and self-depreciation is also an unnamed virtue but may best be described as truthfulness. Truthfulness with regard to keeping business agreements and the like does not fall under the scope of this virtue, but under justice. Boastfulness is a worse vice than self-depreciation.
The mean with regard to humor and amusement is wit. This virtue entails saying the right things in the right manner and also listening to things properly. The man who achieves proper moderation in this regard is also called tactful. The witty and tactful man amuses others in his conversation not through mockery of others or innuendo, but through intelligence.
Shame is not a virtue, because it is a feeling, not a disposition, and also because a good man should have nothing to be ashamed of. A man who does a disgraceful thing and is ashamed because of it cannot be considered good, because a good man would not do a disgraceful thing.
In this chapter Aristotle catalogues and describes the remaining virtues, except for justice, which he leaves for a separate discussion because of its special character. There is no particular order or system to Aristotle's discussion of the virtues, except with respect to the two "peak" virtues, magnanimity and justice. The magnanimous man is one who possesses all the virtues that were discusses previous to itbravery, temperance, generosity and magnificence. Because of his virtues, this man claims and deserves great honors. While he is not vain about his virtue, he is conscious of it and acts accordingly.
In the discussion of each of the virtues, it is clear that Aristotle is not at all attempting to write a code of moral absolutes, but rather to describe what it would mean for a person to excel in virtue. Aristotle was not a proponent of rule-based, deontological ethics like Kant. His ethical system can best be described as "casuistry," a sort of situational ethics in which the specific right thing to do depends on a variety of circumstances. This casuistry is teleological, in that, as was discussed at the beginning of The Ethics, virtue for human beings is acting in such a way as to fulfill the telosend or purposeof human life. The virtues which Aristotle enumerates are guiding principles for which one should aim when determining one's conduct. Virtue is not a matter of following rules but is a habit of acting according to right reason. Thus we find in the description of each virtue that is important not only to do a certain thing or act in a certain way, but do so at the right time, in the right manner, with the right people, with the right intentions and even with the right feelings. For a virtuous man will not take pleasure in vice but will find virtuous actions pleasant. The ability to decide in each specific situation how one should actually act is an intellectual virtue, called prudence, which will be discussed in chapter 7.
It is interesting to note that in order to be magnanimous, which is one of the peaks of virtue, it is necessary for a person to be wealthy. While the virtues are supposed to be both good in themselves and a means to a full and blessed life, they are accessible only to an elite few. For Aristotle, this elitism is not at all problematic. A belief in the equal dignity of all human beings was an outgrowth of Christian philosophy; inequality was taken for granted by the Ancient Greeks and was considered to be part of the natural order. Christian morality is also significantly different from Aristotle's ethics in that humility is considered to be a key virtue in the former while it is a vice in the latter. Nietzsche, noticing precisely these differences between Christian morality and Aristotelian ethics, claimed that society's acceptance of Christian ideals came about as a result of a "slave revolt" of morality in which the Jewish people managed to turn poverty, humility and meekness into virtues in order to exalt their own low place society (The Genealogy of Morals). The elitism which Nietzsche saw as a strength in Aristotelian morality was not, however, viewed so positively by Aristotle himself. For in the end of the Ethics when Aristotle discusses the highest lifethe contemplative lifehe bemoans the fact that this peak of human fulfillment is largely unattainable and perhaps even impossible. More will be said on this subject in the analysis of Chapter 10.
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