Aristotle on Virtue

Virtue too is distinguished into kinds in accordance with this difference; for we say that some of the virtues are intellectual and others moral, philosophical wisdom and understanding and [prudence] being intellectual, liberality and temperance moral.” (Book I, Chapter 13, 1103a 4-7)

“The wise individual personifies,” Daniel said, “the intellectual virtues, whereas the self-restrained, moderate person typifies the moral. The former’s excellence of the intellectual virtues is produced by learning and instruction.  The latter’s excellence is attained through habituation and good child rearing. I find the intellectual virtues interesting. They can give a person a second chance at moral virtue by the recognition of what is good.”

“This next passage states, without a doubt, how the moral virtues are to be learned.

Virtue, then, being of two kinds, intellectual and moral, intellectual virtue in the main owes both its birth and its growth to teaching (for which reason it requires experience and time), while moral virtue comes about as a result of habit… [F]or nothing that exists by nature can form a habit contrary to its nature. (Book II, Chapter 1, 1103a 11-21)

There it is,” John said. “The moral virtues, categorially, are not in us by nature. The moral virtues must be practiced and rehearsed so much so that they become second nature. They’re like riding a bicycle. Once you learn to peddle and steer well enough you no longer have to think about which pedal you should press your weight on, and before you know it you’re doing it. Some have the advantage of beginning moral virtue at a much younger age, which makes their habituated moral virtues more concrete. As for the intellectual virtues, they come about by learning and experience. However, some learn much quicker than others and if their early education was well instructed then they have a great advantage. Remember, Aristotle began at Plato’s Academy at just age 17. He was of ripe age intellectually. Now let’s look forward to what Aristotle has to say about the importance of the activities we choose to take part in, because some may be more conducive towards moral behavior than others:

Thus, in one word, states of character arise out of like activities. This is why the activities we exhibit must be of a certain kind; it is because the states of character correspond to the differences between these. It makes no small difference, then, whether we form habits of one kind or another from our very youth; it makes a very great difference, or rather all the difference. (Book II, Chapter 2, 1103b 21/1103b 25)

If a parent doesn’t hold the office of parent,” john said, “then all bets are off.  Child rearing makes all the difference Aristotle clearly states. So parents must teach what is good and noble at a very young age by habituation and learning. Regretfully, teachers can only do so much in the classroom. Therefore, teachers and parents must work together to aim towards high standards and good examples. Let’s go on to talk about virtue, its deficiencies and excesses:

So too is it, then, in the case of temperance and courage and the other virtues. For the man who flies from and fears everything and does not stand his ground against anything becomes a coward, and the man who fears nothing at all but goes to meet every danger becomes rash; and similarly the man who indulges, while the man who shuns every pleasure, as boors do, becomes in a way; insensible; temperance and courage, then, are destroyed by excess and defect, and preserved by the mean.” (Book II, Chapter II, 1104a 17-26)

“This is the first time the mean, the golden mean, is introduced,” Daniel said. “The balancing point upon where virtue is placed, between deficiency and excess. Moderation, like the oracle of Delphi’s inscription says, “nothing to excess”, gets at the Greek way of life which is always aimed towards moderation and restraint. Moderation seems to be one of the greatest moral virtues then. It’s a safe guard against all vices.”

“Courage indeed is a virtue,” John said. “I’ve seen reckless and cowardly men at war.  War is frightening because in war anything goes. We lost a long, brutal war, even though we had every advantage. When we came back, bruised and beaten, our nation began to contemplate the mission.  We had the troops, the navel capacity, and technology, but it wasn’t enough. Where did we go wrong? Was it in our child rearing? Was it in our leaders? Maybe we didn’t realize the lengths our enemies would go to beat us. This next quote continues on about courage:

[I]n the case of courage; for by being habituated to despise things that are [fearful] and to stand our ground against then we become brave, and it is when we have become so that we shall be most able to stand our ground against them. (Book II, Chapter 2, 1104b 1-4)

How do we prepare one to stand in the face of danger for a noble pursuit? The 300 Spartans stood fast long lasting against the Persian army, The Spartans did this, not recklessly, but upon steady principle. They fought for the freedom of the Greek world. All others under the Persian empires were reduced to slavery by their godly kings Xerxes. The Spartans showed that if just 300 brave Spartans are capable of stopping thousands of Persian troops then the combined efforts of the Greeks could end an empire.  Let us move on to the pleasure principle which we should be cautious about:

For moral [virtue] is concerned with pleasures and pains; it is on account of the pleasure that we do bad things, and on account of the pain that we abstain from noble ones. Hence we ought to have been brought up in a particular way from our very youth, as Plato says, so as both to delight in and to be pained by the things we ought’ for this is the right education. (Book II, Chapter 3, 1104b 9-14)

I agree with Aristotle and what he learned from Plato,” John said. “Child rearing is of most importance. The education a child receives is long lasting in a child’s temperament. That is why children need sports, mathematics, music, history, literature, and philosophy. It all comes together in order to create a serious person. The parent needs to prime their children for intellectual and moral education with good habits and a keen mind.”

3 thoughts on “Aristotle on Virtue

    • Sweet a comment! I don’t think the practice of moral virtue takes knowledge. Parents teach their children virtue implicitly when telling them to do their homework after dinner. When enlisting them in a sport. When opening the door. They engrain them in these habits until its like second nature. This is why early childhood education is so vital. William James speaks about habits at length. Now moral virtue is taught by habit whereas intellectual virtue is taught by prolonged learning in the classroom or library. So crafts, wisdom, prudence and scientific knowledge (episteme) are taught this way. As we get older, it is of my belief, that intellectual virtues can begin to guide the moral virtues into a perfectionist mode of life where we aren’t just acting on habits anymore, but creating ever better habits consciously. When it comes to ethics I’m a pluralist but I believe the foundation of a well brought up human being is virtue.


      • Great response. I do disagree, however, but I think it comes down to our definition of both “knowledge” and “habit.” I would suggest that a habit is a result of knowledge – conscious or not – yet that knowledge is built/reinforced by habit and vice versa.

        But great discussion!

        Liked by 1 person

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