Bibliotherapy

Aristotle-Virtue Is About Finding Balance

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Aristotle (384-322 BC) Ancient Greek philosopher and scientist. Engraving after an antique statue. World History Archive.

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Today’s sharing from the Blue House of HYGEIA is an extract from Aristotle’s ‘Nicomachean Ethics’, book II-H. Rackham, edition and translation. Aristotle in 23 Volumes, Vol. 19. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1934.

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Basic to the whole enterprise, is the notion that individual good or bad traits of character may be isolated and studied separately, a notion formulated most memorably by Theophrastus’s teacher Aristotle in the ‘Nicomachean Ethics’, book II for each range of emotions (fear, anger) or sphere of action (wealth, honor), Aristotle defines moral virtue and vice, ‘excellence and badness of character’ by their relation to the middle: too large or small an amount is to be avoided as a vice, and only by remaining between the extremes can one obtain virtue. Although Aristotle would not reduce moral behavior to a formula, he is nonetheless able to apply this doctrine to a wide range of traditionally named virtues and vices of character (‘Nicomachean Ethics’, 1107 a33-1108 b7). From Jeffrey Rusten’s Introduction to Theophrastus’ ‘Characters’ Loeb Edition.2002.

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From the ‘Nicomachean Ethics’, Book II:

‘First of all, then we have to observe, that moral qualities are so constituted as to be destroyed by excess and by deficiency—as we see is the case with bodily strength and health (for one is forced to explain what is invisible by means of visible illustrations. Strength is destroyed both by excessive and by deficient exercises, and similarly health is destroyed both by too much and by too little food and drink; while they are produced, increased and preserved by suitable quantities. The same therefore is true of Temperance, Courage, and the other virtues. The man who runs away from everything in fear and never endures anything becomes a coward; the man who fears nothing whatsoever but encounters everything becomes rash. Similarly, he that indulges in every pleasure and refrains from none turns out a profligate, and he that shuns all pleasure, as boorish persons do, becomes what may be called insensible. Thus, Temperance and Courage are destroyed by excess and deficiency, and preserved by the observance of the mean.

But, not only are the virtues both generated and fostered on the one hand, and destroyed on the other, from and by the same actions, but they will also find their full exercise in the same actions. This is clearly the case with the other more visible qualities, such as bodily strength: for strength is produced by taking much food and undergoing much exertion, while also it is the strong man who will be able to eat most food and endure most exertion.The same holds good with the virtues. We become temperate by abstaining from pleasures, and at the same time we are best able to abstain from pleasures when we have become temperate.

And so, with Courage: we become brave by training ourselves to despise and endure terrors, and we shall be best able to endure terrors when we have become brave.

An index of our dispositions is afforded by the pleasure or pain that accompanies our actions. A man is temperate if he abstains from bodily pleasures and finds this abstinence itself enjoyable, profligate if he feels it irksome; he is brave if he faces danger with pleasure or at all events without pain, cowardly if he does so with pain.

In fact, pleasures and pains are the things with which moral virtue is concerned.

For (1) pleasure causes us to do base actions and pain cause us to abstain from doing noble actions. Hence the importance, as Plato points out, of having been definitely trained from childhood to like and dislike the proper things; this is what good education means.

(2)Again, if the virtues have to do with actions and feelings, and every action is attended with pleasure or pain, this too shows that virtue has to do with pleasure and pain.

(3) Another indication is the fact that pain is the medium of punishment; for punishment is a sort of medicine, and the nature of medicine to work by means of opposites.

(4)Again, as we said before, every formed disposition of the soul realizes its full nature in relation to and in dealing with that class of objects by which it is its nature to be corrupted or improved. But men are corrupted through pleasures and pains, that is, either by pursuing and avoiding the wrong pleasures and pains, or by pursuing and avoiding them at the wrong time, or in the wrong manner, or in one of the other wrong ways under which errors of conduct can be logically classified. This is why some thinkers define the virtues as states of impassivity or tranquility, though they make a mistake in using these terms absolutely, without adding ‘in the right (or wrong) manner’ and ‘at the right (or wrong) time’ and the other qualifications.

We assume therefore that moral virtue is the quality of acting in the best way in relation to pleasures and pains, and that vice is the opposite.

But the following considerations also will give us further light on the same point.

(5) There are three things that are the motives of choice and three that are the motives of avoidance; namely, the noble, the expedient, and the pleasant, and their opposites, the base, the harmful, and the painful. Now in respect of all these the good man is likely to go right and the bad to go wrong, but especially in respect of pleasure; for pleasure is common to man with the lower animals, and also it is a concomitant of all the objects of choice, since both the noble and the expedient appear to us pleasant.

(6) Again, the susceptibility to pleasure has grown up with all of us from the cradle. Hence this feeling is hard to eradicate, being engrained in the fabric of our lives.

(7) Again, pleasure and pain are also the standards by which we all, in a greater or less degree, regulate our actions. On this account therefore pleasure and pain are necessarily our main concern, since to feel pleasure and pain rightly or wrongly has a great effect on conduct.

(8) And again, it is harder to fight against pleasure than against anger (hard as that is, as Heracleitus says); but virtue, like art, is constantly dealing with what is harder, since the harder the task the better is success. For this reason, also therefore pleasure and pain are necessarily the main concern both of virtue and of political science, since he who comports himself towards them rightly will be good, and he who does so wrongly, bad.

We may then take it as established that virtue has to do with pleasures and pains, that the actions which produce it are those which increase it, and also, if differently performed, destroy it, and that the actions from which it was produced are also those in which it is exercised.

A difficulty may however be raised as to what we mean by saying that in order to become just men must do just actions, and in order to become temperate they must do temperate actions. For if they do just and temperate actions, they are just and temperate already, just as, if they spell correctly or play in tune, they are scholars or musicians.’

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Source for Aristotle’s ‘Nicomachean Ethics’: https://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3atext%3a1999.01.0053
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