Being Virtuous

Aristotle begins Book II by distinguishing between two types of virtue, “intellectual and moral” (1103, 14). Intellectual virtue is that which is determined by reasoning whereas moral virtue is that which is habit. I would proffer that to attain moral virtue one must have first developed a very strong intellectual virtue.

I say this because even habituary actions are not done without thought. Though it is instinctive and immediate opposed to methodical and slow, it still requires the reasoning to compel one to perform this morally virtuous thing. And this can only be achieved by having trained one’s intellectual virtue to a high degree. Therefore I don’t really want to permit the splitting of virtue into two parts. Rather I think, if we want to break virtue down, that we do so by exclaiming there are two levels of virtue- intellectual, being the beginner stage and moral, being for the advanced practitioners.

I like Aristotle’s evaluation of virtue as being something one attains, rather than loses as was according to Protagoras. I think this a healthier environment to promote harmony. To have people striving to achieve something opposed to being afeard of losing something strikes me as likely to create a happier society. Thus I concur, good Aristotle, that it “is the case with virtues also, by doing the acts that we do in our transactions with other men we become just or unjust” (1103, 14-15). And I also agree merely knowing what is virtuous is not enough to label someone virtuous, one must perform the act if they so desire the prize, so that “states of character arise out of like activities” (1103, 21-22). Practice what you preach, as they say. (He says as much himself on 1105, line 15 if you want to have a re-read).

However, I do find Aristotle’s guide to becoming virtuous less helpful. This is not through fault of his own, it is more that the problem with virtue- making the right decision- is that it is tricky to bring about on all occasions. He sets the blanket standard that “virtue is a kind of mean, since, as we have seen, it aims at what is intermediate” (1106, 27-28). Then he provides a list of how this works in various fields: for example, “the man who is pleasant in the right way is friendly and the mean is friendliness, while the man who exceeds is an obsequious person if he has no end in view, a flatterer if he is aiming at his own advantage” (1108, between 25-30. The line numbering seems to go array here.)

Though I agree with the rationale of this particular example, it is only because he has revised his simple mantra of seeking the intermediate. He complicates it when it comes to pleasantness. If his mantra worked in of itself here, then it should go like this: Not being friendly is bad, being really friendly is bad, but being moderately friendly is good. If you take this less literally then it still works. But being a pedant, as I so enjoy doing, if taken for exactly how he says it should perform then he seems to be discouraging extreme friendliness. Now, you say, yes! Of course, overt friendliness is bad. And I reply, yes, overt friendliness is bad. But this is just lots and lots of friendliness. It is friendliness to everyone in everything. Now surely one wouldn’t say that we should strive to be unfriendly in certain instances, just for the means of counter-balancing our invented scales would one? Therefore Aristotle has to add the bit: “the man who exceeds is an obsequious person if he has no end in view, a flatterer if he is aiming at his own advantage”, which again I agree with. But hopefully you see my point in that he has clearly complicated the matter from simply finding the middle ground.

Consequently I argue that his encouragement to do virtue by being intermediate is a lot harder than it sounds. You would have to go through each individual instance to actually find what is virtuous. It isn’t that he claims he has a perfect mathematical formula, but because of the difficulty of discerning the intermediate level on each occasion, it requires a degree of wisdom for a person to act virtuously. I think Aristotle would agree with me here, and I’m certain Plato would. Common sense, fortunately, would likely take one quite far in this respect though.

Aristotle notes the limitations of his mantra in saying “But not every action nor every passion admits of a mean” (1107, 9). Adamson similarly remarks the same in his example of incest. There is not a moderate level of incest deemed acceptable, at least not in the culture I’ve been brought up in. Therefore I think it is very important to take note of how virtue “is a mean between two vices” (1109, 21) [my itallics]. Incest is just one vice, and I have trouble determining what its opposite would be… maybe abstinence? But I was rather hoping that we would be a vice too.

My point here is that vices now become an issue; for we have to discern what are and what are not vices. (Some people think incest is all right as it so happens). Religious doctrine may come to aid here, but that requires us all to agree on a religion. Therefore we arrive back at the problem of relativity, for there seems no objective truth- at least that has made itself apparent to me- as to what is a vice. By consequence of that it would follow that I may have to surrender my ability to be virtuous.

Aristotle realizes the difficult task he has set for one to become virtuous and says, “since to hit the mean is hard in the extreme, we must as a second best, as people say, take the least of the evils” (1109, 34-35). Though I begrudge how tricky the task has been lain out to be, I believe this a decent compromise.


About bnichol3

I am Ben Nicholson, a double major in Philosophy and English. I’m from London, England, and was recruited to Binghamton to play for the soccer team. I’m taking the class for multiple reasons. Chiefly, though, because I am in the Philosophy Pell Honors program and will be writing my thesis on skepticism next semester. In sight of this I believe learning about a couple of the ancient skeptics would be of benefit right now. Other than that functional reason for taking the class, I am interested in Plato and Aristotle for the aphorisms I’ve read by them and the philosophy they’ve inspired. There is much flutter about these two fellows and I think it’s time I understood what it’s all about.

6 responses to “Being Virtuous”

  1. Timea says :

    I find it very interesting that you say that achieving moral virtue requires a strong intellectual virtue. I feel like you bring up a good point—even though Aristotle focuses on the idea of situations you go through rather than having a lot of “knowledge”. I do think that having intellect allows a person to understand their moral values. Intellectual virtue comes from things you learn from birth on, so I believe that having a strong intellectual virtue is weighs heavily on parental influence. Almost like a domino effect because if your parents have strong intellectual and moral value they will most likely pass the ability to understand that to you. I would agree and say that virtue is not splitting them up, because you cannot have one virtue without the other, but more as a level like you explain. Moving up the levels is like part of the journey of life and a constant learning process and not like something you achieve and then are done.

    As achieving something that cannot be lost, like you said, is a very important point in Aristotle’s argument in Book II. I think not only relates to making a person happier because they are striving for something, but can also been seen in a political fashion. If the ruler of a society is thriving for virtue and expresses the ideas of achieve virtue to his people then they will too not worry about falling down this ladder of virtue. Metaphorically I see virtue as a ladder a person climbs up and work towards, and the person climbing this imaginary ladder has a sort of harness on so they can’t fall back down the ladder but just stay in their place.

    I believe what is so tricky about Aristotle’s explanation of achieving virtue and happiness relays on the idea that every situation and person is different. Yet he lays on these guidelines in order for many people to adjust into their own life. This idea of being in moderation and this scale that a virtuous person should be in-between does seem to get tricky. For the friendliness example—I would like to explain it a little further, Aristotle says that being overtly friend is bad. So therefore if you are being too friendly others may think you are creepy or may feel awkward, or you may be taken advantage of. However, if you are not very friendly you can be seen as cold or rude. I think that we don’t strive to be unfriendly, but I think it is more of the understanding of moderation and to avoid the extremes of each side. I would absolutely agree and say that yes it would be very difficult to be constantly be in-between for every situation you encounter. I believe that this idea of virtue and vice is very dependent on the cultural standards we grow up with and how much that reflects on our intellectual virtue.

    • bnichol3 says :

      Thank you for your comment!

      Certainly, parental influence is going to have a say on how their offspring behaves with regard to virtue. It is quite a complex process. How certain children with perfectly virtuous parents become quite the opposite themselves shows that there are many factors that go into deciding how virtuous a person becomes.

      Also, I guess friendliness is the mean between flattery and rudeness. Therefore it conforms quite well to Aristotle’s suggestion that one should seek the middle ground of two vices. It is quite difficult though; working out what the opposites are, and what constitutes a vice in the first place.

  2. Carlos Cortissoz says :

    Well, complete abstinence is indeed a vice, and Aristotle has no problem with saying that. He was certainly not a Christian. (Which makes me curious about how Thomas Aquinas, the most Aristotelian of the scholastics, copes with that; I certainly need to check that out!) So, while I completely agree that Aristotle’s “mantra” allows for countless complications, it is not subject to the limitations you seem to point out. Take any dimension of the human existence whatsoever, and tell me if there’s no appropriate “state of character, concerned with choice, lying in a mean relative to us, as determined by right reason.” I gladly challenge you to show me one! And if there’s no one, and there’s always a mean to look for, there certainly are both excess and deficiency and, therefore, well defined, non-relative vices. After all, to commit incest means to have sex with the wrong person, and you should have sex with the right person, in the right way, at the right moment, etc.

    On the other hand, I respectfully disagree with your denial of friendliness as a mean. Your point, if I understood it correctly, can be put as follows: the “mantra” of the mean entails that every ambit of human existence is like a line, where the mean is a point in between (sometimes closer to one extreme, sometimes closer to the other) and the extremes are two (there can’t be more than two, given that it’s a line). So, how is it that friendliness has two excesses: obsequiousness and flattery? The “mantra” of the mean does not work smoothly, after all. Well, since Aristotle does not really talk about lines, but he certainly talks about targets, let’s pursue that image and say that although the “mantra” of the mean entails in the majority of cases two extremes, it is certainly compatible with many extremes, on the side of both excess and deficiency. So I agree, it can get really complicated. But it’s true too that not in every case you have to consider all the possible excesses or deficiencies. After all, if you’re having sex with the right person and in the right place (at least not in a clearly wrong place), perhaps you should only be concerned about doing it in the right way (whatever that means).

    Then, you say that for the mantra to run smoothly we should talk about moderate friendliness and, as the extremes, about “not being friendly” and “being too friendly.” However, Aristotle would argue in the book on friendship, that people who are “friendly” to everyone in everything, as you say, are not really friends, for friendship means to be pleasant to the right persons, for the right reasons, at the right moments. In that sense, friendship is itself a mean. It’s like incest, but on the other side, the side of the mean. There’s no committing incest with the right relative in the right way at the right place. Similarly, there’s no being friendly to the right person, at the right moment, for the right reasons, for being a true friend already entails “to the right person, at the right moment, for the right reasons.”

    Finally, I’m surprised about your Platonic turn! It is Plato’s Socrates the one who relates virtue to knowledge and understanding, to the point that for him the truly virtuous person is by necessity capable of providing a definition of virtue. In other words, the truly virtuous has contemplated, by necessity, the Form. It’s funny, though, because what people find appealing about Aristotle’s ethics, in contrast with Plato’s, is that the latter results for most people too intellectualist.

    • bnichol3 says :

      That definitely has me thinking about things differently.

      For the first part, I wonder about things such as murder. What would be the opposing vice to this? Pacifism is the best I can come up with but that doesn’t seem a very good vice to me, and then what is the middle ground here besides? What would be a moderate version of murder?

      Regards the friendliness issue, I agree with your rebuttal. So I shall try to come back stronger! What I’m trying to question is, the idea that a person who is perfectly virtuous will be a rather extreme person, because it is very rare and very difficult to be perfectly virtuous. I was trying to apply this notion to the friendliness stuff. That to be friendly “to the right person, at the right moment, for the right reasons” all the time would be a perfect amount of friendliness, lets say. Therefore that person is extreme in the sense that they have taken friendliness to the most refined spaces it can go. Now, I’m not sure that really refutes anything that Aristotle says, but rather articulates instead that even if the virtuous thing is to behave temperately, the person that does so on each occasion is nevertheless extreme. Does that work?

      And I’m kind of surprised by my taking refuge in Plato too. But I guess in this instance I do so in view to being temperate. I’m confiding in him as a lesser of two… objectionable theories. I end up doing this because I like the definition of virtue as doing what is conducive to creating happiness. And to do this effectively I imagine one would have to be either blissfully ignorant, or infinitely wise. Unfortunately I think myself to be led just too far astray from blissful ignorance and a few thousand miles afar from wisdom, but there’s no going back now. Consequently I think virtue requires a very high level of intellect. (However, ultimately I don’t buy into the theory of Forms and so don’t really get off the ground due to skepticism. But, hypothetically speaking, if I permitted truths of some sorts, I think the aforementioned is what I’d end up believing.)

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