Aristotle’s Virtue Ethics: Pursuing Happiness through Virtue and Contemplation

Category: Aristotle, Happiness, Virtue
Last Updated: 31 Mar 2023
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Virtue ethics are ethics which focus on choosing virtuous courses of conduct rather than in adhering to duties.  Aristotle articulates a virtue ethic in the Nicomachean Ethics.  Aristotle reasons that the end of any actions or choice is a good.

(Aristotle, I, ch 1)  He finds that happiness is the ultimate good to which all things are directed.  Of course, different people seek different kinds of happiness, some seeking sensual pleasure, others wealth, others glory.  He finally reasons that “happiness . . . comes as a result of virtue and some process of learning or training, to be among the most godlike things; for that which is the prize and end of virtue seems to be the best thing in the world, and something godlike and blessed.”  (Aristotle, bk. I, ch. 1)   This same statement explains the ingredients of a good life: living according to virtue and contemplating the godlike things.  (Aristotle, bk. I, ch. 9)

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In considering what is virtue, Aristotle notes that some activities are ends in themselves.  We eat to satisfy our hunger.  Other activities are means to other ends.  We practice various sports to better our chances in competition.  From this, he divides virtues between intellectual virtues and moral virtues. Intellectual virtues belong to the rational element of the soul.  These virtues consist of understanding, the acquiring of wisdom, an awareness of the beautiful.  Moral virtues reflect the need to address the irrational elements of the human soul.

These virtues consist of curbing and directing the appetites and desires, so that they remain under the control of reason.  Appetites in human nature are not inherently bad, but if they get beyond the control of reason, creating either an excess or a deficiency, they are harmful to the soul. Such appetites must be regulated by achieving the "golden mean," so that these appetites can offer a positive contribution to the good life. Reflecting his own outlook, Aristotle found that intellectual virtues can never be excessive, for they inherently enhances the welfare of the soul (Aristotle, bk. I, ch. 9)

Aristotle does not give a precise definition of virtue, but develops it more as a negative concept: it is the avoidance of vice or excess.  Virtue is attained by achieving a “mean,” a middle ground among any possible excesses.  The mean is the point between competing virtues and vices which reflects the best balance of these.  “Virtue, then, is a state of character concerned with choice, lying in a mean, i.e. the mean relative to us, this being determined by a rational principle, and by that principle by which the man of practical wisdom would determine it.” Aristotle II, ch. 6)

However, because conduct must deal with individual cases, a determination of the mean must lie with each individual case.  While a philosophical system can enumerate or describe the competing excesses,, it will be for the individuals in each such case to find the mean.

(Aristotle, II, ch. 7)  “But this is no doubt difficult, and especially in individual cases; for or is not easy to determine both how and with whom and on what provocation and how long one should be angry; for we too sometimes praise those who fall short and call them good-tempered, but sometimes we praise those who get angry and call them manly.  Aristotle, bk II, ch 9)

For Aristotle, the final attainment of the happiness is difficult.  “Happiness is among the things that are prized and perfect. It seems to be so also from the fact that it is a first principle; for it is for the sake of this that we all do all that we do, and the first principle and cause of goods is, we claim, something prized and divine.”

Aristotle, I ch. 12.  Further, Aristotle accepts one of the premises of the Greek outlook, that is it best to call no man happy as long as he lives, so that true happiness requires a lifetime.  (Aristotle, bk. I, ch. 12)

That Aristotle was a brilliant thinker cannot be disputed.  He also came from a prosperous background, and was widely regarded for his brilliance during his lifetime.  His philosophy in many ways reflected this, as he believed that what he did in being a thinker and teacher aimed at the ideal life.  (Durant 1939, pp. 324-37) By contrast, Epictetus came from a more humble background, and his Stoic philosophy reflects his life.

He was a slave for much of his life, and while he does not appear to have been subjected to terrible, he retained in all of his work a sense of limitation, that life was given and could be withdrawn at a moment’s notice and without valid reason.  (Durant 1944, pp. 490-93)

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Aristotle’s Virtue Ethics: Pursuing Happiness through Virtue and Contemplation. (2016, Jun 20). Retrieved from

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