Aristotle’s Human Virtue18 May 2015 11 mins read (2000 words)
In the first line of Ethics in Book I Aristotle states that every art, every inquiry, and every action made by a person is aimed at some good. It is in the human nature to aim at some good rather than the contrary of good. Individuals however, don’t always act in according to what is virtuous but they do appear to act always in what they consider to be good. People may become corrupt and still act in according to what is good for them but nevertheless, this might not be a good that is according to virtue. Therefore, it must be examined what is the source of virtue, how it can be acquired, and how a human action becomes outlined as a potential capacity for good virtue.
Before discussing how an action can be considered virtuous or unvirtuous, it is important to define what a human action is and for what sake it is done. For Aristotle, there are two main conceptions and differences between actions. One is an action that is made for the sake of doing the action and the other is an action which is made for the sake of an end. The art of creating equestrian gear and the art shipbuilding, in one way or another, are practiced for the sake of an end and a reason that was predefined by whom these arts are practiced. In the case of the art of crafting equestrian gear and the art of shipbuilding, the end for which these two types of art are practiced is for the sake of warfare. For Aristotle, there is no difference between the craftsmen practicing their art for the the sake of practicing the art or practicing the art for the sake of warfare. Whether one’s art is practiced for the sake of practicing the art and another is practiced for the sake of warfare, it does not make a difference since both of these ways have the capability to yield some form of prosperity for the ultimate art, in this case warfare.
For Aristotle, a “person judges nobly the things he knows, and of these he is a good judge”. Aristotle suggests that a person acquires experience through practicing an art and becomes proficient in the art if he does so consistently and with passion. While doing so, a person becomes a good judge in what he is doing and can therefore have a respected opinion on judging others who practice the same art. So he in this way, a person who practices a specific art and acquires some form of virtue while doing so and this is what allows him to become a noble judge. It also does not matter how old or immature the person is as long as he is able to pursue his passion productively and beneficially. It is therefore evident that a person who practices an art this way acquires some form of virtue since he gains the capability of becoming a noble judge in what he has gained proficiency.
A certain type of virtue that can be acquired through practicing an art has been therefore outlined, however, this is not the only kind of virtue there is. The kind of virtue defined by practicing an art can be acquired through knowledge, practice and instruction from others and is therefore intellectual. The source of acquiring intellectual virtue is therefore outlined. However, there is also another kind of virtue which is moral virtue. A distinction between moral and intellectual virtues must also be examined since these might not always be the same. Aristotle makes a clear distinction between these types of virtues in the beginning of Book II where intellectual virtue comes into being from teaching and moral virtues is something that is acquired through a habit.
Moral virtues are different from intellectual virtue since unlike intellectual virtue, which come from practice, moral virtue is acquired through experiencing what is right or wrong. Right and wrong also includes the opposites of behavior and judgment such as knowing the distinction between what is cowardness or recklessness, deficiency or excess, and pleasure or pain. The awareness of these opposites is what allows for moral virtues to come into existence. If there were to be only pleasure or excess in one part, then some other part might be in pain or deficiency. There is a similarity in Aristotle’s example of when seeing and hearing something many times is not what allows a person to see; rather, it is the ability to see and hear that allows hearing and seeing. A person with moral virtues can therefore “see” the opposites and find the balance between them. A person without the ability to “see” the differences between right and wrong would not be able to know what is right or wrong while constantly doing something in a wrong or right way.
Aristotle makes a distinction between moral and intellectual virtues because the ways they can be thought differe. Intellectual virtues can be thought through instruction while moral virtues on the other hand, can only come through practice and experiencing opposites. Intellectual virtues are easier to teach a person since a teacher is more proficient in teaching these kinds of virtues in the right manner. Moral virtues however, can not always be thought and are not as promising in their results since they require the person to go through his own process of learning and recollection. Aristotle gives a good example with house building where it is much more beneficial for a person to learn how to build house from a teacher rather than on his own. A house builder that would be directed through a teacher would learn house building in ways that have been learned by previous generations of house builders and have proved to be functional. If a person would go through the process of acquiring knowledge of house building through moral virtue, he might not learn the art of house building in the way that would allow him to build good houses. However, this does not mean that it is impossible for a house builder to learn how to build house through the process of recollection and experience in the the way moral virtue is thought.
Inquiring about the actions of individuals is certainly an important process since these actions are products of desires worth accounting for but for Aristotle, the desires of a city as a whole is greater in importance because such desires are noble and divine. Is is then clearly outlined by Aristotle that it is necessary to sustain the virtues of a city with the correct set of virtues of its citizens. The city’s virtousness is what Aristotle defines as the prominent ways of life in which the citizens must choose a part which will allow them to serve as a function for the city’s rule. The three prominent ways of life are defined to be as pleasure and enjoyment, political, and the contemplative.
The people that seek pleasure and enjoyment as their prominent ways of life are who’s life Aristotle calls the one of “fatted cattle”. These people are the ones who choose to seek pleasure as their way of living life and frequently live their life in according to what is pleasurable to them. This way of living is chosen by people who are not always willing to live in according to what is good for the city. It is not completely unreasonable however, that this way of life can be functional to the cities rule.
The political way of life is practice by individuals who choose to live their life for the sake of honor since that is what they consider to be the end of life. They choose honor because they consider it as an achievement, especially when they are honored by the more prudent as well as other citizens of the city. For them, honor is a virtue worth achieving in life and this is what they consider to be virtuous. Aristotle also mentions people who consider moneymaking to be their way of life. In this case, people are useless for the city’s rule unless they are making money not for the sake of money making but for the sake of some other good.
The third prominent way of life which was outlined to be the contemplative life, includes people who consider knowledge to be their motivation in life and that is what they consider to be a virtue. In this case, knowledge for them is what they consider to be the activity in which they are proficient and seek to pursue in order to achieve what they consider to be an end in life. When craftsmen seek to pursue their art, they are pursuing what they consider to be virtue at the same time. A person who has a passion for a specific craft or art must practice it for the benefit of their city otherwise he would be “in error” to the city’s regime. If one were to practice their art for not the sake of benefiting the city, he would fail to serve the city and diminish its virtuousness.
Happiness is one of the main reasons people choose to follow specific virtuous since people appear to pursue their art or their prominent way of life for the sake of being happy. Among other reasons for pursuing happiness, happiness is questioned by Aristotle as being the ultimate cause for any human action and human virtue. Whatever a person choses to be virtuous, once he fulfils it, he is happy. An individual is therefore happy when he succeeds in doing something good in according to what is considered good by him. Similarly to virtues however, happiness is considered different to many people since happiness for a virtuous person and happiness for unvirtuous person can differ significantly. It is therefore important for a person to pursue happiness in a virtuous way, rather than in a unvirotus way since not only he would benefit himself in ways that have been proven by intellectual virtue, but he would also benefit the regime and other people around him such as his fellow citizens, family and friends.
Happiness is also a product of any virtue since ultimately, it is sought on account of itself and never for account of something else. Individuals choose to pursue certain virtues since by pursuing these virtues, they expect to become happy. But happiness is never chosen for the sake of something else, while virtues are always sought for the sake of something and most frequently they are sought for the sake of happiness.
Virtue becomes very reliable on happiness in a way that if virtues wouldn’t be sought if they were not able to yield happiness. It also becomes important for person to be virtuous in order for him to pursue virtuous happiness rather than the corrupt type of happiness that an unvirtuous person might persue. Since happiness can be a product of persuasion by both good and bad virtue, it is the happiness of a virtuous person that is worth pursuing since it is the one that would benefit the individual and the city. It is also important that the three prominent ways of life would all yield virtuous happiness rather than corrupt happiness. If corrupt happiness were to be the type of happiness persuaded by people, it would not benefit anyone but the person who is pursuing that type of happiness.
It has therefore been defined what a human action is, for what sake a human action is made, and an ultimate reason for any action. Ultimately, a human action is made for the sake of a craft or a virtue. The differences between moral and intellectual virtues that allow us to define the ways of pursuing virtues and how they can be acquired through a process teaching and recollection have also been brought up. The ways virtues are served in the city has been defined by the three prominent ways of life and how these ways allow an individual to function in a society. And ultimately, how happiness can become one of the most important reasons for the persuasion of virtue.