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Aristotle’s Theories of Virtue and Ethics

1603 words (6 pages) Essay in Philosophy

18/05/20 Philosophy Reference this

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Sometimes, the moral intellectualism of Aristotle has been exaggerated pretending that he despises or ignores the natural inclination of man towards pleasure and happiness. But it has been done unfairly. For Aristotle, as for most Greek philosophers, happiness is the main objective of existence. What happens is that Aristotle does not consider it legitimate to reach it by any means. We do well to try to be happy, but not if we try to be happy at any cost or at whatever cost. The happiness that is achieved through deception or the production of suffering from others is unworthy. Only the happiness that is achieved by the straight path or by the path of virtue is worthy of being enjoyed. And only wisdom and knowledge allow us to discover which are the legitimate ways to happiness and which are not.

What Aristotle strives to show that there is a close relationship between, virtue and happiness. The knowledge of good leads to the practice of virtue, and the exercise of it makes us happy. “Happiness is the best, and the most beautiful and the most delightful. This is virtue, which makes us able to practice the beautiful actions”[1]. Happiness belongs to the venerable and perfect things because it is a principle, because of it we do everything else. Human virtue is not that of the body, but that of the soul, so happiness will be an activity of the soul[2]. Virtue is divided in two “virtues of thought” and “virtues of character.

Virtues of thought grow mostly from teaching and that is why it needs experience and time. Aristotle has said that “Thought by itself moves nothing; what moves us is goal-directed thought concerned with action.”[3] In my understanding, the thought by it self is the basis of a good action but it is nothing without the actual doing of it. Virtues of character are essential to achieve that good action, which at the same time character are the actions connected to the thought of the action that a human being does.

Once these two virtues are together the human will get the felling o happiness. For example, when you help someone in desperate need and their nothings nothing in exchange but a smile or a thank you. That inner feeling is the happiness that Aristotle is trying to explain. However, by using reasonable thinking and character can also perform a bad action, both good and bad behavior need them to be performed, the difference is in how people use them.

On the other hand, there are virtues of Character where basically the education is always moral because making the individual a full human being is the same as making him good. However, virtues of character are not feelings nor capacities, instead is a state that decides, consisting in the mean relative to us, which define the reference to reason, things such as generosity and temperance are a clear example of it, because they come from habit.

In Book II of Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle explain virtues of character by saying:

“None of the virtues of character arises in us naturally. For if something is by nature in one condition, habituation cannot bring it into another condition. A stone, for instance, by nature moves downwards, and habituation could not make it move upwards, not even if you threw it up ten thousand times to habituate it; nor could habituation make fire move downwards, or bring anything that is by nature in one condition into another condition. And so, the virtues arise in us neither by nature nor against nature. Rather, we are by nature able to acquire them, and we are completed through habit.”[4]

He states that what is given or has a direct nature action can never be a virtue of character because it will always be the same. Personally, I totally relate with Aristotle with this because, I can see it very clear in athletes. Most of them have become what they are nowadays because of all the practice (habit) they have done throughout their lives, which makes them persons, and probably citizens.

Aristotle distinguishes and differentiates in The Politics and the Constitution of Athens the concepts of person and citizen, although to understand the difference that must be referred to other concepts such as State and Society. The State is formed through the union of families oriented to the common good. And after the union of many families, thus forming the people, and the union of many peoples, the State is formed, which is a result of the social dimension of man that instinctively leads to forming a society with others.

 “the good man is he who has one single excellence which is perfect excellence. Hence it is evident that the good citizen need not of necessity possess the excellence which makes a good man”[5]. When we hear the word excellence, we sometimes feel as if it were a distant cosmic entity. As if it were untouchable and too complex to be achieved. But, returning to those who make land, every day, we perform various activities. One followed by the other. Some bigger, longer. Other minors, faster. And as much as we were (or not), repetition always reaches us. And that is the key point: for Aristotle, it is in the world that dwells excellence.

Our biggest mistake is finding that excellence is something to be achieved. Like a mountain we need to climb to the top. It is not! Excellence is the most constant of processes, it has no end. Excellence is working with the utmost attention on what you are working on. Do “the best possible” that routine activity.

One quote example that Aristotle mentioned in the book politics “Like the sailor, the citizen is a member of a community. Now, sailors have different functions, for one of them is a rower, another a pilot, and a third a look-out man, a fourth is described by some similar term; and while the precise definition of each individual’s excellence applies exclusively to him, there is, at the same time, a common definition applicable to them all.”[6]According with this, there are many options for people to be citizens by being part of their government, although, not everyone is a citizen, since the non-citizen person (slaves, foreigners …) can have an address or rights, but only the citizen can have the functions of judge and magistrate, or what is the same, rights and freedoms policies. But there is also a division between citizens. Citizens who have not yet reached the required age “Incomplete citizens” and the elderly who have been removed from the civic registration “retired citizens”.

In this way, if man, as first nature is a rational being, as second nature is a political being or animal. The voice is possessed by all animals, but the word is possessed only by man, who also possesses the sense of good and evil, and allows him to give statements of the ethical and moral order, the convenient and the harmful, together with the ability to think.

He is the one who participates in judicial and administrative functions. The task of the citizens is the security of the community, and the community is the regime, so that the virtue of the citizen is necessarily linked to the regime, that is, if there are several forms of regimes there can be no single perfect virtue of the good citizen. On the other hand, the man of good is according to a single perfect virtue. Political equality is given between citizens, and with political leadership it is sent to those of the same class and to the free, it is where the ruler must learn by being first governed.

The good citizen must know and be able to obey and command, that would be his virtue, knowing that both the virtue of thought and character require each other in other to form a good citizen. Once that person is a full citizen then he can work in the political field to guarantee the city and the people in it their survival. 

  • Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Second edition. Translated with Introduction, Notes, and Glossary, by TERENCE IRWIN. Hackett Publishing Company, Inc. Indianapolis/Cambridge
  • Aristotle, Aristotle: The Politics and the Constitution of Athens. Edited and translated by Stephen Everson. Publisher, Cambridge University Press

[1] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Second edition.  (pg1099a 24)

[2] Ibid., Nicomachean Ethics, Second edition (pg1102a 15)

[3] Ibid., Nicomachean Ethics, Second edition (pg1138b 37)

[4] Ibid.,Nicomachean Ethics, Second edition (pg1103a 19)

[5] Aristotle., Aristotle: The Politics and the Constitution of Athens (1276b 33)

[6] Aristotle., Aristotle: The Politics and the Constitution of Athens (1276b 20)

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