09 October 2016

Aristotle's Intellectual Virtues

Aristotle divided human virtues or excellencies into two classes: moral and intellectual.

The last two Saturday posts looked at moral virtue in Aristotle's world and in our own.

Today a brief look at the intellectual virtues.

Brief--because an in depth look is beyond both my competence and my readers' interests.

Below, one translated version accompanied by the Greek:

understanding (nous)
knowledge (episteme)
art or skill (techne)
prudence (phronesis)
wisdom (sophia)

These all describe different kinds of knowledge. Aristotle describes and gives examples of each of these intellectual virtues, but much less so than with the moral virtues.

And in an  even briefer description:

understanding: knowing that
knowledge: knowing why
art: knowing how to make
prudence: knowing how to act
wisdom: all the above intellectual virtues

Aristotle suggests that in the same way that the man who possesses all the moral virtues is just, the man who possesses all the intellectual virtues is wise.

Now the moral and intellectual virtues are conceived by Aristotle as desirable character or personality traits. Indeed, the title of his main work Ethics is best translated character. This differs from modern understanding of ethics. We usually think of ethics as a set of rules to obey or goals to achieve. For example, many larger companies have "Rules of Acceptable Conduct" or a "Mission Statement." These provide both rules to follow and ends to seek. Aristotle's teachings on character do not directly appeal to that kind of thinking.

There is one of Aristotle's intellectual virtues, however, that provides some guidance on that point.

Consider the virtue of prudence. This is the practical wisdom concerning ends and means. Aristotle describes the prudent man as "the man who can deliberate well about what is good or expedient, not only with a view to a particular end such as strength health, but with a view to well-being or living well."

Some later philosophers call this practical wisdom about proper ends natural law.

This virtue helps distinguish between good ends and bad ones--right ones and wrong ones. Next Saturday's post will look at prudence--the practical wisdom about well-being or living well.

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