Aristotle on Virtue

Updated: Oct 14, 2020

With our study of Henry David Thoreau now complete, we turn to Ancient Greece at the time of Aristotle to study his great work,  Nicomachean Ethics(public library), a treatise on living the good life.

Aristotle believed that happiness, man’s “greatest good,” is only made possible through living a virtuous life. He divided virtue into two distinct types, virtue of thought and virtue of character. As the virtues of character result from our habits, these will be the focus of this discussion.

Most are familiar with the quote attributed to Aristotle, “We are what we repeatedly do, therefore excellence is not an act, but a habit.”

In truth, Aristotle never said this. These are the words of Will Durant from his The Story of Philosophy: The Lives and Opinions of the World’s Greatest Philosophers commenting on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, but proves a succinct description of his thesis. Aristotle believed that the virtues of character do not arise in us naturally but must be cultivated through consistent practice.

“Virtues, by contrast, we acquire, just as we acquire crafts, by having first activated them…we become just by doing just actions, temperate by doing temperate actions, brave by doing brave actions.”

We become by being.

The Pre-Socratics were concerned with philosophy in theory, and it wasn’t until Socrates became concerned with its practical application that other thinkers began to do the same. Socrates taught Plato who then taught Aristotle (think S.P.A.).

As Thoreau taught us in our series on Walden, Aristotle believed that philosophy is meant to teach us to live well, and that by definition, a good life would consist of good actions, not simply a good understanding of what those actions should be.

“..for the purpose of our examination is not to know what virtue is, but to become good, since otherwise the inquiry would be of no benefit to us.”

This is a simple but profound concept which can completely shift the course of our lives.

We very easily get lost in the trap of becoming. We set goals for who we want to become and plug away toward those ends with the subtle belief that we are not enough as we are. Our hopes for tomorrow rob us of today’s opportunity.

Personally, I tend to discredit the quality of my actions due to the size of their scale. I find myself aspiring toward the example of a Gandhi or Mother Teresa, believing that the quality of a person is contingent upon the degree of their influence. When I become aware of this myopic thinking, and the suffering it creates, I remind myself that we become by being.

There is no greater time to practice virtue than the present, and the only way to follow such examples is to live that way now.

As Aristotle believed that our greatest happiness is found in such practice, our next post will seek to clearly define what virtue is using his Golden Mean.

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