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Ethics - Book Two - Aristotle


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Themes: Action, Choice, Virtue.


Because Book One ended with a definition of happiness centered on complete virtue, Book Two fittingly opens with a discussion of what is virtue. In Chapter One Aristotle divides virtue into intellectual and moral, and emphasizes that “moral virtue is the result of habit” (1103a16). Therefore, moral virtue cannot be present in humans by nature, “since nothing that exists by nature is habituated to be other than it is” (1103a20). He gives the example that a stone cannot be trained to fly, no matter how many times it is thrown upward. Because its nature is to go down, it cannot be habituated to do the contrary. “Neither by nature,” he concludes, “nor contrary to nature are the virtues present; they are instead present in us who are of such a nature as to receive them, and who are completed through habit” (1103a25). Humans are not virtuous or vicious by nature, but they are by nature the sorts of beings who can be virtuous or vicious. And by actions a person gains or loses a virtue. Chapter One ends with a remark on the importance of our actions and upbringing: “Hence we must make our activities be of a certain quality, for the characteristics correspond to the difference among the activities. It makes no small difference, then, whether one is habituated in this or that way straight from childhood but a very great difference—or rather the whole difference” (1103b22-25).

Since it is not through knowledge but through actions that people gain virtue, actions are what Aristotle focuses on in his investigation, since, as he reminds the student of ethics, “we are conducting an examination, not so that we know what virtue is, but so that we may become good, since otherwise there would be no benefit from it” (Chapter Two. 1103b27-29). Because actions are always particular things done in particular circumstances, there is a necessary lack of precision in the realm of moral matters, as there is in matters of health. Despite this drawback, Aristotle nevertheless strives to provide some useful thoughts. 

What follows is an investigation into the nature of moral virtue. His first observation is that virtues are destroyed by both excess and defect. For example, courage is destroyed by too much fear or too little: “he who avoids and fears all things and endures nothing becomes a coward, and he who generally fears nothing but advances toward all things becomes reckless” (1104a20). He next indicates that “moral virtue is concerned with pleasure and pains: it is on account of the pleasure involved that we do base things, and it on account of the pain that we abstain from noble ones” (Chapter Three. 1104b9). Virtue produces the best actions in relation to pains and pleasure; “there being three objects of choice and three of avoidance—the noble, the advantageous, and the pleasant together with their three contraries, the shameful, the harmful, and the painful,” the good person does the right thing with regards to all these objects. 

Virtue is not a mere capacity, nor can it be a passion, for “we are neither praised or blamed in reference to the passions simply” (Chapter Five 1105b33), but must rather be a characteristic in the soul, involving choice in some way. Like the virtue of a horse makes it good at running, bearing its rider, and braving danger, so the virtue of a human being must be what makes a human being good at his proper work. But since people and situations differ, this characteristic must somehow hit the middle when it comes to actions and passions. 

Aristotle concludes that virtue is “a characteristic marked by choice, residing in mean relative to us, a characteristic defined by reason and as the prudent person would define it. Virtue is also a mean with respect to two vices, the one vice related to excess, the other to deficiency” (Chapter Six. 1106b36-1107a2). He gives several examples of virtues as the mean and vices as the extremes. For instance, courage is a mean, whereas the excess of confidence is called recklessness, and the deficiency of confidence and excessive fear is called a coward. The book ends with an image Aristotle uses to show how one is to aim at virtue: “we must drag ourselves away from [the object of our inclination] toward its contrary; for by leading ourselves far from error, we will arrive at the middle term, which is in face what those who straighten warped lumber do” (Chapter Nine. 1109b5-7).


Opening questions:


What is Aristotle’s definition of virtue and how does he get to it?


What does the image of straightening warped lumber in Chapter Nine illustrate?


How does one become courageous, according to Aristotle? 

If a person has to do virtuous deeds to become virtuous, but one also must be virtuous to act virtuously, how can anyone ever be virtuous? 

Suggested Pairing:


Plato, The Republic; Aeschylus, The Oresteia

Series on Happiness:

Seneca, On the Happy Life; Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics; Gospel of St. Matthew, Sermon on the Mount and The Beatitudes; Augustine, The Happy Life; Julien La Mettrie, Man a Machine; Bentham,  An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation; Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents; Bertrand Russell, Conquest of Happiness; Kringelbach and Berridge, The Neurobiology of Pleasure and Happiness; Steven Pinker, How the Mind Works.

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