The Virtue of Aristotle’s Ethics

Virtue for Aristotle is the way to achieve happiness. The Greek philosopher, in his Nicomachaean Ethics, states that we must control our desires and impulses with the use of reason.

Without excesses and without faults, ethical virtue for Aristotle is in the middle ground, in the just measure.

What is virtue for Aristotle?

The term virtue comes from the Greek word areté, which means, in a broad sense: excellence.

But what is this excellence?

To answer this, we must remember that Aristotle was an outstanding proponent of the doctrine of teleologism (finalism), which states that every being has an end, that is, a purpose of its own.

The purpose of a knife, for example, is to cut something; the purpose of musical instruments is to produce music.

When a being perfectly accomplishes that for which it was made, that is, its purpose, we can say that it has reached its excellence, its virtue. Thus, the knife reaches its excellence (virtue) when it cuts well and the musical instrument when it can produce good music.

Therefore, in order to speak of the virtues properly human we must know the ultimate end of man, after all, virtue is closely linked to the purpose of a being.

What is the purpose of human life?

If every being has a purpose, what would man’s be? According to Aristotle, the purpose of human life is to achieve happiness (eudaimonia, in Greek).

And our happiness, for Aristotle, consists in achieving the excellence of the highest faculties of our soul.

Now, what makes man different from all other living beings is precisely his rationality: man is a rational animal, as Aristotle said.

Therefore, it is important to understand how Aristotle conceives the human soul and its relationship with the virtues.

The human soul and its functions

For Aristotle the human soul has three parts that perform different functions:

  • intellective soul: responsible for his reason, for his ability to think and understand intelligible things. This is the most important and superior soul to the others; it is the one which makes man a unique being, essentially different from the irrational animals;
  • sensitive soul: that which gives man the ability to feel sensitive qualities, that is, his five senses; moreover, from it comes our desires (appetite);
  • vegetative soul: the soul that is the basis of all living organisms: men, animals, plants, responsible for the most elementary functions of life: generation, nutrition, reproduction.

Each of these 3 parts of the soul has its own functions and therefore if they fulfill their purposes properly they will achieve excellence, virtue.

Being the most basic part of all living things, Aristotle does not consider the virtues of the vegetative soul. His focus is on the intellective and sensitive soul.

2 kinds of soul virtues

Aristotle divides 2 kinds of virtue according to the nature of the soul:

  • Dianoethical virtue (from the Greek dianoia, meaning ‘reason’) – Intellective soul;
  • Ethical/moral virtue – Sensitive soul;

What is dianoetic virtue?

The dianoetic virtue, also called intellectual virtue, is related to the intellective (rational) soul of man. This rational part, in turn, has two functions:

  • Know the immutable and necessary things;
  • To know the mutable and contingent;

Consequently, the dianoetic virtue will also be divided into two, according to these functions cited above:

  • Wisdom (sophía, in Greek): related to the knowledge of the immutable, the divine, the metaphysical science that studies being as being; the first and eternal causes and principles. Therefore, this virtue is linked to theoretical wisdom.
  • Discernment (phronesis): designates the ability to choose in a just and appropriate way, leading man to the path of good and avoiding evil. In this way, phronesis is considered practical wisdom.

That is, if I know the eternal and immutable truths, I can say that I exercise with excellence the function of my rational soul whose function is precisely the knowledge of the necessary and immutable. Therefore, I have the dianoetic virtue called Wisdom (sophia).

On the other hand, if with the use of my reason I can adequately discern what is good and evil in practical life, in daily life itself, then I can say that I have the virtue called phronesis.

What is virtue ethics?

Ethical virtue is related to the sensitive part of man’s soul. And according to Aristotle, this soul has a certain relationship with reason, because reason has the ability to dominate it. Unlike the vegetative soul, in which reason has no dominion.

As stated above, in the sensitive soul is anchored the human desires and instincts.

When an individual puts these instincts and desires in the domain of reason he achieves ethical virtue. But it takes a stable mastery of the instincts, it is not enough to be temporary; it has to become a habit!

Virtue ethics as a habit

Controlling impulses and desires is not an easy thing. Aristotle says that it is only possible to master them through dedicated effort to the point that they become habits, and then virtues. But what is a habit?

Habit (héxis, in Greek; habitus, in Latin) is a stable quality, difficult to change, and that is achieved precisely through dedication, overcoming and repetition. It differs from disposition (diathesis), which is an easier quality to change.

Aristotle in chapter VIII of his work Categories defines virtue as a habit:

Let us call a kind of quality, habit and disposition. A habit differs from a disposition in that it is more stable and more durable. This is how knowledge and virtues are. For knowledge seems to be a permanent thing and difficult to change (even if one acquires it moderately), unless a great change occurs, by illness or some other such thing.

Now, if habit is an acquired quality, it logically follows that virtue is not an innate quality: no one is born virtuous, he becomes so. Aristotle states in the Nicomachaean Ethics:

Virtue, then, being of two kinds, intellectual and moral, the former, as a rule, is generated and grows thanks to teaching – therefore it requires experience and time; while moral virtue is acquired as a result of habit, hence its name was formed by a slight modification of the word (habit). For all this, it is also evident that none of the moral virtues arises in us by nature.

Virtue ethics and the middle ground

The desires and instinctive impulses of the sensitive soul tend toward the vice of excess and lack. Man’s reason must control these impulses in just measure, in the middle ground. Aristotle says:

Virtue is concerned with passions and actions in which excess is a form of error, as is want, while the middle way is a form of rightness worthy of praise.

For example, a very brave person, who fears nothing, is erring by excess, because he can put his life at risk. On the other hand, the fearful person errs by the vice of lack.

Therefore, the virtue of courage should be in the middle ground; always striving for balance. He says in the Nicomachaean Ethics:

For example, both fear and confidence, appetite, anger, compassion, and in general pleasure and pain, can be felt in excess or in an insufficient degree; and, in one case as in the other, this is an evil. But to feel them on the proper occasion, with reference to the proper objects, toward the proper persons, for the proper reason, and in the proper manner, therein consists the middle-ground and the excellence characteristic of virtue.


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