Sunday, February 8, 2015

Aristotle on Virtue

Aristotle defines happiness—or human thriving—as the rational activity of the soul in accordance with virtue (or excellence).

He subsequently identifies several specific virtues or excellencies. He divides them into two kinds, intellectual and moral. The intellectual virtues are learned through instruction. You can never have too much of them. 


He notes the existence of another impulse in the human personality. He writes “there is also observable another element by nature irrational, which struggles and strains against the rational.”

This is what he called passions---emotions and desires.

There is nothing wrong with emotions in themselves. The most meaningful and memorable moments in everyone's lives are such because of the intensity of emotions accompanying those moments. But emotions can be destructive. Aristotle asserts that people must subject their emotions to reason so that they benefit us rather than harm us. This cannot by done through instruction. It is accomplished by training and habituation. (More on this later.) 

Our desires, too, need the moderation of reason. Aristotle warns that many people “go wrong in enjoying the wrong objects, others enjoying the things with abnormal intensity, or in the wrong way.”

The wrong objects simply means choosing the apparent good over the real good. Everyone has made the mistake of desiring something believed to be good  only to find out otherwise. One of the most obvious and common examples of this mistake is narcotics. People never use narcotics to grow addicted or destroy themselves. They use them because they appear good--say to alter ones mood or anesthetize emotional pain.

Enjoying things with abnormal intensity means enjoying a good to excess. Wine is good until one becomes a drunkard. Food is good until one becomes a glutton.

Sometimes enjoying a good in excess involves making it the supreme good to the exclusion of others. For example, many men and women take the good of work and elevate it to the supreme good, so that family relationships grow weak or one's health suffers. And many young people pursue video gaming with such a passion that they sacrifice friends, school, and work.

According to Aristotle, we must have right desires that follow right reason. In his words, “If the choice is to be a good one, the reasoning must be right and the desire must pursue the same things the the reasoning asserts.”

When emotions and desires follow reason, Aristotle calls them moral virtues.When we fail, they become moral vices. Failure comes from both deficiency and excess.

Aristotle creates a table of a dozen or so moral virtues, but we will look a just a couple.

For example, when confronting fears, the virtuous man who exhibits courage keeps his presence of mind under pressure. In contrast, a man deficient in courage flees and reveals his cowardice. And a man who acts rashly in excess acts without thinking and he endangers both himself and others.

Similarly, when reacting in anger, the virtuous man knows how intense to be angry, with whom to be angry, and how long to be angry. A man deficient in this virtue is said to be spiritless—he is not even angered by what should ignite his passions. A man whose anger exceeds what is appropriate is angry for too long, with the wrong person, or with the wrong intensity—rage!

Finally, the general or liberal man knows to give money to the right person, for the right reason and in the right amount. The miser gives no money to anyone. And the profligate gives money to anyone.


CW said...

I think Aristotle was a wise man. It's always intriguing to me that so many people with seemingly everything to live for end up throwing their lives away on drugs or alcohol or suicide. At the same time, so many people with relatively little by comparison (whether it's wealth or unique talents or both) live long, happy lives. Their happiness is derived not from things or from meaningless experiences but from a life well-lived.

RightDetour said...

Yes he was. I have heard him aptly described as the common sense philosopher. As to people throwing away their lives on trifles, it seems a plague of modern times when, as you note, people enjoy more health and prosperity than ever before. Someone else remarked (I cannot remember who) that humanity has demonstrated it can survive all kinds of extreme deprivation. It remains to be seen if humanity can survive prosperity.