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.