Aristotle’s Definition Of Virtue

Last Updated: 27 Jan 2021
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Nowadays, virtues are associated with refinement and nobility of one’s character. Aristotle believed that virtue is a function of the soul that guides every action of an individual. Thus, every action illuminates the discretion of an individual to act freely the chosen disposition. Since every human has a soul and virtue is its activity, can we classify every action as virtuous action? In Nicomachaen Ethics, Aristotle examined the inter-relations among the purpose of every human action, virtues, and vices in the achievement of happiness.

Aristotle believed that the supreme good is the ultimate goal of every human endeavor. What then is the “good” for a man that can be possibly attained through his endeavors? It is happiness but relatively defined; vulgar men associated it with pleasure while people with refined character ascribed it to honor. While these things are pursued to achieve happiness in one’s self, but “good” should be pursued not only for happiness but for the “good” itself---as an end. The “good” brings happiness and is associated with function or activity.

For instance, if you are a behest pianist then, you are good in playing piano for you are functioning well. The well-performance of your function creates happiness not only for yourself but also for the others, thus, giving you a unique identity. In the same line of reasoning, soul is an aspect of humans that differentiated them from the rest of the animals. Thus, man’s function concerns the soul. The rational component of the soul controls man’s impulses, thus, makes him virtuous.

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Therefore, “human good turns out to be an activity of the soul in accordance with virtue, and if there are more than one virtue, in accordance with the best and most complete. ” As such, the nature of virtue then should be explored. Moral Virtues The product of teaching is the intellectual virtue while moral virtue resulted from the habit. Thus, it is never the case that moral virtue arises spontaneously on man’s being. Moral virtues are inculcated in man’s soul and perfected by habits. “For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them. For if all men are naturally born good or bad, adept or inept in certain skills, teachers have no sense at all. On the same ground, moral virtues can be learned or destroyed in one’s soul: by interacting with others we may become just or unjust; by experiencing perils we may become brave or coward; and other circumstances may impart hedonism, ill-temperance, or self-indulgence. Moreover, by absorbing moral virtues at very young age, great difference will be made in one’s soul. Since it is through training, virtues are acquired; training then at very young age can mold virtuous personality.

Conditions for the Conduct of Virtues Just and temperate actions are done by a man who has the sense of justice and temperance. “But if the acts that are in accordance with the virtues have themselves a certain character it does not follow that they are done justly or temperately. ” Several conditions are necessary for the conduct of every virtuous action: knowledge of virtues; disposition for virtuous actions; and power to do virtuous actions. Hence, knowledge on virtues is not enough to become virtuous; rather, the disposition to put virtues into actions is a must.

It is common sense to us, for example, that insufficient food and water taken into the body results to poor nutrition while a balanced diet ensures good health. “So too is it, then, in the case of temperance and courage and other virtues. ” Avoidance of fears leads to timidity while extreme braveness endangers one’s life; absolute abstinence creates insensibility while hedonism shapes one’s indulgence. Since wrong doings are committed due to pleasure and noble character is avoided due to pain, pleasures and pain then are subjects of every virtue.

The Doctrine of the Mean “Now neither virtues nor the vices are passions, because we are not called good or bad on the ground of our passions, but are so called on the ground of our virtues and our vices. ” Passions, faculties, and states of character exist in the soul: passions are desires; faculties are abilities to perceive passions; and states of character are the choices to either put the passion in action or not. Feelings of pains and pleasures or passions, and the knowledge on good or bad are not virtues for virtues involve modes of choice.

In addition, we naturally have faculties and desires. The man’s virtue then, involves the state of character that makes the realization of every desire that either good or bad. “For instance, both fear and confidence and appetite and anger and pity and in general pleasure and pain may be felt too much or too little, and in both cases not well; but to feel them at the right times, with reference to the right objects, towards the right people, with the right motive, and in the right way, is what is both intermediate and best, and this is the characteristic of virtue. The deficient and excess among the activities that give pleasure or pain is a vice while moral virtues lie in between of these deficiency and excessiveness, hence, the mean. However, the “mean” can not be found among actions which are entirely wrong such as crimes and envy. For the “mean” among entirely wrong actions is either its excess or deficiency, “but however, they are done they are entirely wrong; for in general there is neither a mean of excess and deficiency, nor excess and deficiency of a mean. Also, an extreme of a particular activity can be closer to its mean such as in the case of courage; courage is more of rashness than cowardice. This is so because of the things that are farther from its “mean” are its opposites. Moreover, Aristotle’s concept of the “mean” is not a strict doctrine; since the things and degree of happiness for each individual varies, so as the extent to which the “mean” for every case lies. It is only through the aid of our practical reason that we may determine the mean in a particular situation.

Thus, virtue is a set of innate dispositions for the governance one’s action towards the attainment of happiness. Happiness then is not achieved unless one acted in accordance with his virtuous dispositions. Since actions are the concern of moral virtues, the attributes then of which should be examined. The Nature of Actions The nature of actions was classified by Aristotle as voluntary, nonvoluntary and involuntary. Involuntary actions are done against one’s disposition; voluntary actions are in accordance with the disposition; and nonvoluntary actions are accidentally done due to ignorance.

Since virtue governs one’s disposition to act in accordance with the “mean,” the primary basis then of a virtuous action is the goodness of choice. For an action is always a product of premeditated choice of an individual for the attainment of one’s purpose, it is therefore voluntary. This also satisfies the conditions that Aristotle believed are necessary for virtue: knowledge, volition, and doing. On the other hand, if an individual was forced for a certain action, although seem involuntary, he is still responsible for that action for he has a choice for not doing.

Meanwhile doing things because of ignorance is involuntary if at the end, one recognizes ignorance while failure to do so, makes it nonvoluntary. For instance, if a drunkard is addicted to liquor due to inability to discern virtuous things, the person then is guilty of ignorance and the action is nonvoluntary. If at some point of time, the person realized his ignorance, the action then becomes involuntary. With these, only ignorance can excuse an action to be called a vice but has limitation.

If after realizing virtuous things, the person has continued to be a drunkard, then the action is voluntary and he is therefore vicious. Conclusion For Aristotle therefore, virtues are dispositions that acted in accordance with the doctrine of the mean towards the attainment of happiness. Happiness can not be achieved by merely just having or knowing virtues, rather by putting virtuous dispositions into actions. Thus, virtue is an active condition that makes one apt at choosing.

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Aristotle’s Definition Of Virtue. (2017, Jun 04). Retrieved from

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