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Aristotle occupies an indispensable position in the study of moral philosophy. So much of what he said has shaped up our thinking today. No serious student or teacher of this subject could intelligently absorb himself in a philosophical discussion without coming to terms with Aristotle’s thoughts.
Together with Socrates and Plato, Aristotle (384-322 BC) completed the triumvirate of the great Greek philosophers. He was born in Stagira in northern Greece and educated for twenty years in the Academy, the famous school instituted by Plato.1 Although he did not become the chosen successor of Plato in the Academy, Aristotle became the most notable pupil of Plato and whose achievement was the only thing that exceeded Plato’s promethian work. After Plato’s death, he returned to Macedonia and became a tutor to Alexander, the son of King Philip of Macedonia and who later created one of the greatest empires in human history. He came back to Athens and established his own school, which he named Lyceum.
He devoted the rest of his life to teaching, writing, and research in a surprisingly broad range of topics, which included metaphysics, logic, ethics, and other philosophical subjects, and physics, biology, psychology, and other empirical sciences. Although he compartmentalized knowledge into many sciences, he did this in line with his over all thrust of constructing a “system” of knowledge that sought to explain everything coherently.
Ethics is one of the major intellectual preoccupations of Aristotle. It may not be as precise as his other scientific treatises, but his ethics, which is based on “character-formation,” serves as a systematic, if not complete, guide to living a good life. He believes that a good life is achieved through a long and rigorous process of habituation to good practices.
What were the works of Aristotle in ethics?
Aristotle’s ethical teachings were compiled under three titles, each of which was written in a different stage in his career. These include Eudemian Ethics, Magnia Moralia, and Nicomachean Ethics. For most scholars, among these three, the Nicomachean Ethics (NE) is the most complete work that explains his mature views in ethics.2 In this light, our discussion will revolve much around the basic themes of the NE, with special emphasis on character-building and virtues; after all, “ethics” refers essentially and originally to “ethos,” the Greek word for character.
It is particularly important to note that for Aristotle, although ethics has its own distinctive subject matter, it is intimately entwined with politics. As a matter of fact, NE is just the first volume of a two-volume study of politics. Aristotle, in Book I of NE, says that his inquiry is a kind of political science.3 The second volume is entitled “Politics,” which is suppose to be a sequel to the former. Both are practical sciences, dealing with the practical aspects of the human society and how the state and the individual could make good life possible.
What is “teleological” and “naturalistic” ethics?
Aristotle’s ethical account is distinctively labeled as teleological and naturalistic. Teleological because it embraces the belief that man, like any other being, has an “end” (telos), towards which his very existence intends and finds meaning. All actions terminate in this end. His ethics is also naturalistic because it describes the “end” as something natural to man. Thus, the end towards which man’s life is intended is in accordance with his nature.
Happiness as the ultimate end…
Aristotle was seeking for man’s ultimate end, that is, the ultimate “product” of all human acts. It is not just an end as activity but an end as the ultimate product of all activities. If this end is that towards which everything terminates and that which does not refer to further ends, then this end is an end-in-itself. For the human beings, this ultimate good or end is Happiness (eudaimonia). Happiness is that which people always choose for the sake of itself and not for something else. Money is not our end, since it is just useful for getting something else. Even intelligence and virtue are not good in themselves, but good only because they make people happy. Happiness is found to be something perfect and self-sufficient, being the end to which all actions are directed.
People may have different opinions about the meaning of happiness. However, the happiness thought of by Aristotle and other Greeks is very much different from its English counterpart. They construed eudaimonia not as a feeling or emotional well-being, but as fulfillment, success, or flourishing, which reflect very significant aspects of the social life of ancient Greeks. For the Greeks, happiness is a matter of living (energeia) the right way. In addition, Aristotle stressed that happiness is something that does not happen in the flickering moments of our lives. Rather it is something that lasts. Good things that happen once in a while are forgetful, but constant joy bears a lasting impact and qualifies for true happiness. True happiness lasts because it is a product of rigorous training and constant application of rules that remain stable and universal throughout our life’s journey.
Happiness as the proper exercise of reason…
Happiness is the intended product of virtuous living. If happiness is the highest human good then it consists of the proper function of man, not just of some of his parts but of his whole being. Man is a hegemony of reason, so to function properly, he must use his highest faculty, which is reason, in ordering all his actions and endeavors. Happiness is then said to be man’s proper and constant exercise of reason.
It would be hard to appreciate Aristotle’s happiness philosophy without going into the intricate details of his discussion of the particular virtues. Happiness is an activity, achieved through a constant and habitual practice, just as a flutist in order to be good constantly develops his skill with the flute. Through his study of the virtue, we are led into a plausible path towards the happiness.
What are virtues?
As the “mean” disposition…
If something functions properly, then it becomes good. But if it malfunctions, then it falls short of goodness. For man, he is said to function correctly if he does the right actions. Actions are product of deliberation or choice. Someone is said to have done the right act if he has made the right choice. And right choice is that which follows the rule of the “golden mean,” which states that the good is always found somewhere between what is deficient and excessive.
Generosity or liberality is the mean in relation to wealth, i.e. to the taking and giving of wealth, more especially the giving.7 Its excess is prodigality or squander, and its deficiency is illiberality. The former vice is for Aristotle more favorable than the latter because it can be checked by teaching the value of money. Magnificence, which also involves the sphere of getting and spending but in a major sense, requires a good sense of taste. The deﬁciency of this state is called niggardliness, and its excess vulgarity.8 In face of honor (in the smaller scale), it is good to have a proper ambition, but vicious if excessive or deficient.9 Magnanimity, which also involves the sphere of honor and dishonor, but in a major sense, is the disposition of knowing the honor your worthy of.10 A magnanimous person is great and always seeks his rightful place. Its excess is vanity or conceit, and its deficiency is pusillanimity.
Character is derived from the Greek word χαρακτερ which originally connotes a mark impressed upon a coin. It then evolved into the word used generally to mean a distinctive mark by which one thing is distinguished from another. Today, it primarily means the assemblage of qualities that distinguish one individual from another.
Character, inasmuch as it is an observable phenomenon, is now a subject matter properly tackled by psychology. Nonetheless, modern empirical psychologists trace their roots in the philosophical treaties of Aristotle with regards to his discussion of character. Among the Greek moralists, he has provided the most psychologically insightful account on character for the modern empirical psychologist. His account provided them with an ample amount of data regarding character-building very much applicable to child rearing and other socially oriented matters.
As a part of the soul…
According to Aristotle, character is a part of the soul. The soul has three components: passions, faculties and states of character. The passions are man’s feelings, desires, fears, anger, ambitions, and others. The faculties are man’s natural capacities and potencies for feeling and acting. And the states of character are thought to be the complex tendencies or dispositions to act and feel in certain ways under certain circumstances. Nature allows us to have characters because they are ingrained in our souls. Nonetheless, they are just ingrained “potencies” and it is up to us to perfect them through habit.
As a disposition…
Character is a disposition: it is a disposition to act and also a disposition to feel. For Aristotle, character is determined by actions and at the same time it determines future actions. It is determined by a long-term practice of actions developed into habits, which in turn will be the pattern for which actions are to be undertaken. Character also involves emotions so it is a disposition to feel. By emotions we mean the cultivated and habituated, and not the immediate impulses.
Virtue is a character or disposition.21 It is not a feeling or a faculty. Feeling may move us to act and faculty determine our capacity for feeling, but only in virtue is man a subject of praise or blame.
Virtuous and Vicious…
A person who always does virtuous things, towards the right people, for the right end, and in the right way by striking the mean, will certainly be a virtuous person. While a person who always does vicious things by repeated actions of extremes and deficiency will certainly be a vicious person. The character of a virtuous person is cultivated first by habituation. Eventually, this constant practice will lead to knowledge and understanding of the action itself. And when one fully understands the whys of his actions then he will learn to enjoy and continue choosing them for their own sake, and thus act out of a settled state of character.22 A virtuous person necessarily takes pleasure in his actions. Thus, one’s enjoyment of his actions serves as a proof that he is a virtuous person.
Continent and Incontinent…
When a virtuous person reacts to the things around him, there is harmony in his emotions and reason.24 The virtuous person’s soul then, is whole, unified and not tattered. This is what distinguishes the virtuous person from other states of being such as continence, incontinence and vice. The continent and the incontinent persons are divided by the conflict of their desire and will. Like the vicious person, one part of their soul is upset at being restrained, and another is delighted by the intended action.25 This dichotomy tears them apart. In contrast to a vicious person, the continent and incontinent persons have internal conflicts, but are, nevertheless, more aware of their inner conflicts than the morally vicious person. Continence is essentially a kind of self-mastery; right reason overcoming negative desires.26 The continent person recognizes what he should do and does it, but to do so he must struggle against the pull of recalcitrant feelings. On the other hand, incontinence is a kind of softness or inconsistency. He knows that his actions are wrong, but still does them because of his feelings.27 The incontinent person in some way knows what he should do, but fails to do so because of recalcitrant feelings.
Divine Virtue and Brutishness…
For Aristotle, divine virtue and brutishness are the best and worst moral states possible to every individual. Divine virtue, on the one hand, is considered as virtue that exceeds the usual human mode of virtuosity. It is virtue in the fullest sense; a state close to divinity. Brutishness, on the other hand, is a moral state close to being an animal. It is a disposition wherein thoughtful action is absent and, therefore, only involuntary wrongdoings are present. In a sense, the agent in this state looses the highest part of his nature and tends to be an animalistic and irresponsible agent.
By giving the correct fundamentals…
The human mind starts to know something either in an a priori or a posteriori manner. The goodness of virtue or habit is not a naturally acquired knowledge innate to us since birth. They are known a posteriorily in the sense that we acknowledge them first as given to us as “the that.”28 But the human mind must justify the “that” taught to them in their initial encounters of what is good. So, the essentiality of the “that”, the good fundamentals, could only be fulfilled when one understands and applies it from the heart. The “that” must be complemented by the “because” for it to be complete. So in order for one to become familiar with common beliefs he needs a good upbringing.29
To have good fundamentals is the first step in having a good character. If one has a good upbringing and correct fundamentals then he has the correct starting point.30 The importance therefore of the fundamentals lies in its being an indispensable starting ground or origin for the development of a good character. This is why, for Aristotle, goodness could only be found and achieved in a selected few.
For Aristotle, the proper way of acquiring the fundamentals is through habituation.31 There are three modes of acquisition: induction, perception and habituation. The starting points for ethical actions are acquired through habituation just as bodily actions are acquired through perception of some bodily necessity.
As stated above, the origin of a good character is the acquisition of good fundamentals through habituation and internalization. Habituation, therefore, is the process by which the origins of character development take shape. It is a developmental process in which one increases his power of discernment in his perceptual, affective and deliberative capacities. It is not solely a rigid process of constructing a mind of tabula rasa into a mechanistic one. Aristotle insinuated that in the process of habituation the agent must be able to know that he is doing a virtuous action, decide on them and do the actions from a firm and unchanging state.32 Habits are therefore voluntary and moral actions.
Aristotle says that all are born with the potential to be morally virtuous, but it is only by behaving in the right way that people train themselves to be virtuous.
Aristotle’s theory of habituation speaks loudly of his general goal of imparting a practical science. Ethics is practical and it becomes useless if it remains in the domain of the abstract. Habituation is not mere theoria; it is essentially praxis. The notion therefore of character is not merely an abstract concept equally the same as modern concept of “personality” but a state which necessarily arises from the repetition of similar activities.33
Are we Responsible for our Character?
Since habituation is a product of active deliberation and voluntary action, it is evident that character, the result of habituation, accounts for the responsibility of the person. Yet, one might object that people should not be held responsible for their voluntary actions because being negligent or evil may be part of their character. But Aristotle firmly holds that a person is always responsible for his character as well as his actions arising from his character: “…A man is himself responsible for becoming careless, because he lives in a loose and carefree manner; he is likewise responsible for being unjust or self-indulgent… For a given kind of activity produces a corresponding character.”35
Is a solitary life better than a shared life?
For Aristotle, contemplation is the excellence of man’s intellect. Since the intellect is the highest thing in man, and the objects that it apprehends are the highest things that can be known,contemplation is the highest form of activity.36 Man can therefore be happy by himself when he engages in contemplation.
Unlike any other activity, contemplation is the most continuous activity. It is also the most pleasant and most self-sufficient. Aristotle also says that contemplative life is a god-like life because we come closer to the Divine realities. In Book X, chapters 7–8, he gives it a special position, making it the pinnacle of a well-lived life, the highest of all human activities.
Although one can achieve happiness in his solitude through contemplation, Aristotle asserts that friendship is a better condition than solitariness. A self-sufficient life is one whose activities are intrinsically worthy. It has its ends which are worth choosing regardless of what may become of them. Aristotle is not concerned to justify friendship because it conduces to or promotes self-development but because it is part of a self-contained, fully realized life.
Aristotle says that even the contemplative man needs external goods in order to be happy. These goods may be good birth, good children, and beauty. Man is a political animal and there is nothing more that affirms this statement than his life as essentially openness for friendship.
It is remarkable to note that two of the ten books of the Nicomachean Ethics is devoted to friendship (philia). This is because philia involves a wide variety of human relationships, and not because it is of more importance than the subject on contemplative life.
There are three types of friendship: friendship based on utility (pragma), friendship based on pleasure, and friendship based on goodness of character. The first two are superficial and not long-lasting because they are based on an unstable foundation. The third, however, is the best type because it is based on a stable ground. It is the love for “who” the other person is and not the love for “what” the other person can give. A virtuous person treats others according to their personhood and not according to what they can give him. He treats others as individuals who has persons and not merely as objects of his personal interests.
To know the goodness of one’s life, one needs to have intimate friends whose lives are similarly good, since one will be able to evaluate life when it is not his own. Man knows the kind of life that he has through his friends; his alter egos.
It is in living in activity with others that one becomes more continuously active and more fully happy. A solitary life will be a hard life, for it is not easy to keep up a continuous activity by yourself as you will easily get tired of what you’re doing. Unlike the solitary person, one who engages in activity with others will have the joy of companionship.37
According to Aristotle, our life’s project is to be happy, and building a good character is necessary. Put simply, our happiness consists in having a balanced life.
For many reasons contrary to our present understanding, Happiness for Aristotle is living a moral life. It is having the stability and consistency of character. It is thriving in a strong disposition, a flourishing, that neutralizes the seducing power of pleasure.
In order to achieve happiness, it is imperative that one has already developed a good character. A virtuous person is a happy person while a vicious person is a miserable person, even though it may seem, as usually the case, that the latter enjoys more the luxuries in life.