24 September 2016

Aristotle on Virtue

Last week's post explored Aristotle's view that happiness is the supreme goal in life.  Aristotle asserts that happiness is the goal or purpose of life. Aristotle defines happiness—or human thriving—as the rational activity of the soul in accordance with virtue (or excellence). In modern terms, Aristotle is concerned with "the good life" or how to excel at being human.

Virtue today is an uncommon word with a meaning that seems to be a relic from the past. It especially conjured up the image of a chaste woman from the Victorian Era. It actually derives from the Latin word vir, which mean man.

It is also just a bit vague. So what does it mean to be virtuous? Aristotle subsequently identifies several specific virtues or excellencies. He divides them into two kinds, intellectual and moralBecause of Aristotle's conversational even meandering writing style and the challenges of translation from Greek to English, lists of these virtues often differ in terminology in the various versions of Ethics. Without any elaboration on their specific meaning, here is one list:

First are the intellectual virtues. These are acquired through instruction. You can never have too much of them. The first three refer to theoretical or speculative matters; the last to with the practical matters of how-to-act and how-to-do.

wisdom
knowledge
understanding
prudence
skill


In contrast, the moral virtue, are acquired through training or habituation. One can have too little of these virtues--and too much--so that they cease to be virtues at all.

courage
temperance
generosity
magnificence
dignity
veracity
wit
sociability
modesty

Aristotle implies that the man who possesses all these virtues exhibits the highest of specific virtues: justice.


What does it mean to have too little or too much of a moral virtue?


In Ethics, Aristotle refines his definitions for each of these virtues and provides examples of deficiency and excess. For example, according to Aristotle, courage is the mean for any individual facing fear or hardship. A person with courage fears the right things in the right way. A person who lacks courage is recognized as a coward. That much is obvious to anyone. Less obvious is when a person acts in excess responding to danger and become foolhardy or rash. This, too, is a vice. Similarly, Aristotle sees wit as a social virtue. It ceases to be a virtue, however, when one lacking wit becomes a boor--a person with no sense of humor who frowns on those who do. Likewise, wit ceases to be virtue when one becomes a buffoon--a person who excessively laughs and makes light of everything.


Many commentators on Aristotle suggest that these virtues fit best in the context of the fourth-century Greek city-state. In some ways his account reads like a book on etiquette and an advice book on how to be a gentleman. Indeed, Aristotle himself observed that laborers and farmers, owing to the demands for work, do no possess the time to cultivate these virtues to the fullest. A man devoted to hours of manual labor cannot really become a gentleman.


Aristotle's reservations, however, primary concern the acquisition of virtue needed for serving in a prominent leadership role as a ruler in the city-state.


Any person can--and should--cultivate some of these virtues as least to some degree in order to contribute to their thriving as human beings and living the good life for themselves.


And, according to Aristotle, is this not the purpose, end, or goal of life?


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