What Is Virtue According to Aristotle What Is Virtue According to Aristotle

What Is Virtue According to Aristotle? Uncovering its Essence in 5 Points

Aristotle’s definition of virtue has long perplexed scholars and philosophers alike, as it delves into the complexities of human nature and moral character. The philosophy of Aristotle, one of the most influential thinkers of all time, provides a rich and nuanced understanding of human virtue.

By exploring the intricacies of Aristotle’s definition of virtue, we gain valuable insights into the different dimensions of human excellence and the path toward living a virtuous and fulfilled life.


What Is Virtue According to Aristotle?

According to the ancient Greek philosopher, there are two distinct types of virtue that shape our actions and govern our lives.

The first type, known as moral virtue, encompasses habits and behaviors that lead to virtuous actions, such as honesty, courage, and generosity. These virtues are cultivated through repeated practice and become a part of one’s character, guiding individuals toward leading morally upright lives.

On the other hand, intellectual virtue involves the development of one’s rational faculties and the pursuit of knowledge and wisdom. Aristotle believed that intellectual virtues, such as prudence, understanding, and wisdom, are essential for making sound judgments and ultimately attaining eudaimonia, or human flourishing.

As we delve deeper into his thoughts in the following sections, we will explore how these ideas come to life in the realms of childhood nature, balance in character traits, community relationships, and the active condition of virtue.

1. Introduction to Aristotle’s Perspective on Virtue

Nicomachean Ethics, bookk by Aristotle
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In Aristotle’s view, virtues are not simply acts or behaviors, but rather intrinsic character dispositions or personality traits. They are purposive dispositions that lie in a mean, chosen for their own sake and determined by reason. This perspective highlights the profound interplay between our actions, choices, and the core essence of who we are.

In his philosophical treatise, Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle delves deep into the complexity of virtue, challenging conventional wisdom and offering a unique perspective. However, as with any controversial topic, there are varying opinions and interpretations.

Idea of Character

The heart of Aristotelian virtue ethics rests on the idea of character.” Unlike act-centered moral theories, which focus solely on the morality of individual actions, Aristotle’s approach emphasizes the importance of the moral agent’s character.

For instance, consider David, a bank employee forced by armed robbers to open a safe. According to Aristotle, David’s act, under extreme duress, is involuntary and thus he bears no moral responsibility.

This example demonstrates how Aristotelian virtue ethics takes into account the broader context, including the actor’s intentions and circumstances, rather than just the act itself.

Concept of Essence

Central to Aristotle’s philosophy is the concept of “essence,” understood as the core substance that defines the nature of a thing. In the realm of ethics, the essence of virtue is closely tied to the idea of “eudaimonia,” often translated as flourishing or well-being.

According to Aristotle, the ultimate goal of human life is to achieve eudaimonia, a state of flourishing characterized by virtuous activity and fulfilling one’s function. For example, Naomi, an exceptionally talented pianist, may feel happy playing simple tunes, but she truly flourishes when she tackles complex compositions, fulfilling her function as a pianist.

In sum, Aristotle’s perspective on virtue paints a complex picture of human morality, where virtues are deeply ingrained character traits, actions are evaluated in light of their context, and the essence of virtue is tied to the flourishing of the individual.


2. Virtue as a Childish Nature

Aristotle’s philosophy introduces the concept of our first or ‘childishnature, painting a picture of how this foundational disposition can cast a lasting influence on our lives.

In his view, our formative years are a mold, shaping our character and making our happiness susceptible from within.

This susceptibility arises from the fact that our childish nature never fully leaves us, even when we mature. It is because of this nature, Aristotle argues, that we often find ourselves drawn to change, even if it results in detriment.

Role of Virtue 

However, amidst this dynamic tension between our inherent dispositions and the potential for growth, virtues act as a harmonizing force. They bring our souls closer to a state of enduring pleasure, a sense of satisfaction that transcends fleeting joys and taps into something deeper.

According to Aristotle, moral virtues are the key to achieving this harmony. By cultivating virtues, we navigate away from our immature inclinations towards actions that are reasoned and purposeful.

Thus, the role of virtue is not just about being good. It’s about making us feel good in the long run.

  • The nurturing of these virtues begins early, with parents playing a pivotal role in shaping a child’s virtue.
  • They guide us towards virtuous behavior, sometimes withholding desired things or preventing irrational fears to teach us self-restraint and courage.
  • The idea is to make the child act virtuously, even in the absence of true virtue.

As Aristotle puts it, “Assume a virtue if you have it not.”  This practice helps to instill the habit of virtuous action, which ultimately aids in the development of genuine virtue over time.

Interestingly, Aristotle recognizes an inherent challenge in this process – the struggle against custom. He describes custom as a ‘monster’ that consumes all sense but paradoxically serves as an angel in guiding us towards virtuous habits.

The key lies in harnessing this potential for good, using consistent actions to build a sturdy foundation of virtue. This process may require ongoing effort and discipline, but the reward is a more harmonious soul and a more pleasurable life.


3. The Mean: Balancing Virtue and Vice

In the fascinating landscape of Aristotelian philosophy, a pivotal concept is that of ‘the mean‘. Aristotle posits that virtue resides in this mean, a state of balance between excess and deficiency in our character traits.

To understand this, imagine a pendulum swinging. On one side, there’s excess; on the other, deficiency. The mean, according to Aristotle, is the pendulum’s resting point in the middle – it’s the sweet spot where virtue thrives.

Aristotle’s Mean Illustrated

To further illustrate, let’s examine a widely recognized vice: gluttony.

A gluttonous person may overindulge, prioritizing their personal desires over the well-being of others. Suppose they have been saving a bowl of chocolate mousse for themselves all day.

If a friend arrives unexpectedly, the gluttonous person might hide the dessert or quickly eat it before opening the door. On the other hand, a person deficient in the enjoyment of food, perhaps due to excessive restraint, might not have any treats to offer their visitor at all.

The virtuous individual in this scenario, then, would find the golden mean. They are neither enslaved by their desire for treats nor do they suppress these pleasures altogether.

Instead, they are able to share their saved treat with their friend, enhancing the visit and sharing a joyful moment. This person hasn’t only balanced their personal desire and abstinence. They’ve also found a way to foster friendship and communal harmony.

Embodying the Mean and Natural Pleasure

The mean, then, is more than just a balance—it’s a path towards a more fulfilling life. By finding the right balance, we are neither ruled by excess nor crippled by deficiency.

This balance can lead to genuine happiness as an individual is able to fully partake in the natural pleasures of life.

In the case of the chocolate mousse, the person who embodies the mean doesn’t merely share a dessert, they share a pleasurable experience. They are not entrapped by bodily pleasures or completely detached from them, rather, they are free to explore the possibilities that serve good ends and act on them.

The concept of the mean is not about strict moderation or avoiding extremes at all costs. It’s about seeking an equilibrium that aligns with our nature, allowing us to live more fully and authentically. As Aristotle suggests, the key to achieving this lies in our ability to judge what is truly pleasant or painful amidst the fluctuating circumstances of life.

So, Aristotle’s mean isn’t just a philosophical concept—it’s a practical tool for life. It invites us to step back, assess our actions and behaviors, and strive for a balance that brings us closer to our true virtues.


4. Virtue in the Context of Friendship and Community

In Aristotle’s philosophy, virtue doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It plays a pivotal role in fostering homonoia or like-mindedness within a community. This social harmony is often achieved through a system of reward and punishment that encourages virtuous behavior.

concept of moral values
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Aristotle believed that these rewards and punishments could be instrumental in guiding individuals towards ethical behavior, thus creating a more harmonious society.

But how does this system work? The principle is simple yet profound. When a virtuous action is rewarded, it not only reinforces the person’s good behavior but also sets an example for others to follow.

On the other hand, when wrongdoing is punished, it serves as a deterrent, dissuading individuals from choosing a path that leads away from virtue.

In this way, reward and punishment serve as societal tools, shaping the behaviors and attitudes of its members towards a shared vision of the good life.

Aristotle’s Account of Friendship

Moving from the broader community, we delve deeper into a personal level with Aristotle’s thoughts on friendship. According to him, friendships can be categorized into three types: those based on utility, pleasure, and love of character.

  • Friendships based on utility and pleasure are transient, as they are dependent on the benefits or enjoyment derived from the relationship.
  • However, friendships rooted in the love of character referred to as virtuous friendships, are more enduring as they are built on mutual respect and admiration for each other’s virtues.

From an Aristotelian perspective, friendship can teach us a lot about moral virtue. It provides an environment where virtues such as generosity, courage, and selflessness can be realized and appreciated.

Moreover, Aristotle opined that true virtue, and by extension, the highest form of friendship, arises among people who do not seek happiness in either utility or pleasure but in the practice of virtue itself.

The Interplay between Virtues, Friendship, and Community

The relationship between virtues, friendship, and the overall well-being of a community is inextricably intertwined. Virtuous individuals foster virtuous friendships, which in turn contribute to a virtuous community. This symbiotic relationship underscores the importance of the individual’s role in cultivating a virtuous society.

For Aristotle, virtues are not just personal attributes but social ones as well. They guide our interactions with others, influencing the quality of our relationships and our contributions to the community.

Therefore, developing virtues is not merely a personal pursuit but a social responsibility. By nurturing virtues within ourselves, we are indirectly contributing to the betterment of our community, creating a harmonious society wherein everyone thrives.

As we explore Aristotle’s perspective on virtue, it becomes clear that virtue isn’t just about individual righteousness. It has wider implications for our friendships and our communities, acting as the glue that holds society together.

It’s a reminder that our actions have a ripple effect, reaching beyond our personal sphere to touch the lives of those around us.


5. Hexis: The Active Condition of Virtue

Delving deeper into the heart of Aristotle’s Virtue Ethics, we encounter an intriguing concept: Hexis. Translated from Greek, hexis represents an active condition or state.

In the context of moral virtues, Aristotle famously identifies virtues as hexeis, suggesting that virtuosity isn’t a passive trait, but an active, dynamic condition.

A book on Aristotle's philosophy
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The Active Nature of Hexis

Understanding virtue as an active condition significantly alters our approach to moral behavior. Rather than perceiving virtue as inherent or automatic, we recognize it as something that requires constant effort and attention.

This perspective calls for us to be fully engaged in our moral practice, continually refining our actions and reactions to align with our virtuous disposition.

Consider, for instance, the act of writing or swimming. These skills can become habitual, serving their purpose more efficiently as they become more automatic.

However, when these habits lose their purpose or become mechanical, they cease to be voluntary. In contrast, a moral action, under the banner of hexis, is always voluntary, purposeful, and conscious.

Hexis vs. Ktisis: The Importance of Active Engagement

Comparing hexis with passive possession, known as ktisis in Greek, underscores the fundamental role of active engagement in maintaining virtue. Unlike ktisis, which implies the possession of a trait without any ongoing effort, hexis demands continuous involvement.

Consider the example of reading a printed word silently, a response that could be considered habitual. A supervisory attention system, another cognitive module, can override this habit, offering a clear illustration of how behavior can be influenced by internal struggles between different mental modules with different agendas and goals.

This duality mirrors the tension between hexis and ktisis, where active engagement and passive possession are in constant interplay.

In essence, Aristotle’s concept of hexis encourages us not just to possess virtue but to actively pursue it. It pushes us to live our virtues, adapting them in response to our evolving understanding of morality, and engaging constantly in the endeavor of moral self-improvement.

It’s not enough to know what’s right; we must also strive to do what’s right, and therein lies the true essence of virtue.


Conclusion: The Essence of Virtue in Aristotle’s Philosophy

In our exploration of Aristotle’s perspective on virtue, we have discovered that his approach is entrenched in the idea that virtues are character traits, deeply ingrained dispositions that guide our actions and decisions.

These virtues, according to Aristotle, are not passive traits but active conditions or states, which he termed ‘hexis’.  Aristotle saw ethical virtues as intricate rational, emotional, and social skills that require constant attention and effort. Virtues are not possessions to be acquired and stored away. Instead, they must be actively cultivated and practiced.

The importance of balance, or ‘the mean’, was another fundamental concept in Aristotle’s virtue ethics. Aristotle also highlighted the role of virtue in forming meaningful friendships and fostering harmony within a community.

With these key points in mind, it’s fascinating to observe the relevance and application of Aristotelian virtue ethics in contemporary society. Despite the passage of centuries,

Aristotle’s insights continue to offer invaluable guidance on how to lead a fulfilling life. His emphasis on balance can serve as a beacon in our fast-paced, often excessive modern lifestyles.

In the spirit of Aristotle, I encourage you to strive for balance, actively engage in moral practice, and continually evaluate your virtues.

Watch the video below depicting Aristotle’s theory of Virtue

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