In Book 2 of the Nicomachean Ethics (c. 330 BCE), Aristotle argues that moral virtues are developed by habit. Unlike sight and hearing, which are given to us at birth, virtue is not in our nature. But neither is it contrary to our nature, which is adapted to receive it. Just as a sculptor became a sculptor by sculpting, so the virtuous became virtuous by exercising virtue.

One cannot define virtue with any precision because the goodness of a feeling or action is highly person- and context-dependent. All that can be said is that virtue, like strength, is undermined by a lack or excess of training. For instance, he who flees from everything becomes a coward, while he who runs headlong into every danger becomes rash. Courage, in contrast, is given by the mean.

Moral excellence is intimately related to pleasure and pain. It is in the pursuit of pleasure and avoidance of pain that bad deeds are committed, and good deeds omitted. Hence, it is by pleasure and pain that bad people are bad.

There are three objects of choice, the noble, the advantageous, and the pleasant, and three objects of avoidance which are their contraries, the base, the injurious, and the painful. The good tend to go right about these, whereas the bad tend to go wrong. This is especially true of pleasure, which is common to the animals, and also contained in the advantageous and the noble. The good feel pleasure from the most beautiful, noble [kalos] actions, but the bad or not-good are often confused about what might be most pleasant. It is harder to fight with pleasure than with anger, but virtue, like art, is concerned with what is harder, and the good is better when it is harder.

A person may perform an apparently virtuous action by chance or under duress. An action is only virtuous if it is recognized as being virtuous and performed for that sake by a person with a set, unvarying character. In sum, an action is only virtuous if it is such as a virtuous person would perform.

The Golden Mean

Three things are found in the soul: passions, faculties, and dispositions [hexeis]. As virtues are neither feelings nor faculties, they must be dispositions: dispositions to aim at the intermediate, or mean, between deficiency and excess.

Hitting this mark is a form of success and worthy of praise. While it is possible to fail in many ways, it is possible to succeed in one way only, which is why the one is easy and the other is difficult. By the same token, men may be bad in many ways, but good in one way only.

So far so good, except that not every passion or action admits of a mean: for instance, not envy or murder. It is never a question of murdering the right person, at the right time, in the right way, for murder is neither a deficiency nor an excess, but always and intrinsically vicious.

The principal virtues along with their corresponding vices are listed in the table below.

Copyright Neel Burton

In some cases, one vice can be closer to the virtue than the contrary vice. For instance, rashness is closer to courage than cowardice, and prodigality is closer to liberality than meanness. This is partly because the contrary vice, whether cowardice or meanness, is more common. Hence, people oppose not rashness but cowardice to courage, and not prodigality but meanness to liberality.

It is no easy task to be good. To increase the likelihood of hitting the mark, we should do three things:

  • Avoid the vice that is furthest from the virtue or mean
  • Consider our vices and drag ourselves toward their contrary extremes
  • Be wary of pleasure and pain

To quote Aristotle:

For in everything it is no easy task to find the middle… anyone can get angry—that is easy—or give or spend money; but to do this to the right person, to right extent, at the right time, with the right motive, and in the right way, that is not for everyone, nor is it easy; wherefore goodness is both rare and laudable and noble.

Sometimes, we may somewhat miss the mark, for instance, get angry too soon or not enough, yet still be praiseworthy. It is only when we deviate more markedly from the mean that we become blameworthy.

We help others by being virtuous, but we also help ourselves, for virtue is a disposition to happiness, and happiness is the exercise of virtue.

Neel Burton is author of The Gang of Three: Socrates, Plato, Aristotle.​

L’Ecole de Platon (detail), by Jean Delville (1898). Source: Wikimedia commons/public domain.

Although they stood for reason, Socrates and Plato believed that, ultimately, it is by the power of love that we might be led to wisdom.

After the fall of the Western Roman Empire, the knowledge of Greek was lost in the West. In around 321 CE, the philosopher Calcidius had published a Latin translation of the first part of Plato’s Timaeus, which for almost 800 years remained the only substantial section of Plato available to the Latin West.

Fortunately, the study of Plato continued in the Byzantine Empire and Islamic World. At the 1438-39 Council of Florence, the Byzantine scholar George Gemistos Plethon reintroduced Plato to the West as part of a failed attempt to repair the Great Schism between the Eastern and Western Church and present a united front to the Ottoman Empire (Constantinople finally fell to the Ottomans in 1453).

While in Florence, Gemistos Plethon made an impression on the banker, politician, and patron of the arts Cosimo de’ Medici, who had, among others, commissioned the David of Donatello, the first freestanding male nude sculpture since antiquity. He persuaded Cosimo to establish an institute and informal discussion group, now known as the Platonic Academy of Florence, which, under Cosimo’s protégé Marsilio Ficino, went on to translate all of Plato’s extant works into Latin. This, in turn, ignited and inflamed the humanist Renaissance.

It is also Ficino who coined the term “Platonic love” [amor platonicus], which first appears in a letter that he wrote to Alamanno Donati in 1476. In 1492, he published a series of Platonic love letters to Giovanni amico mio perfettisimo[“Giovanni my most perfect friend”], the poet Giovanni Cavalcanti.

But what is the basis for Platonic love in Plato? The two key relationships are the ones between Socrates and Alcibiades, and Socrates and Phaedrus.

Socrates and Alcibiades

Socrates was remarkably full-blooded for an ascetic philosopher. In Xenophon’s Symposium, he says, “For myself I cannot name the time at which I have not been in love with someone.” By all accounts, his greatest love was with the famously handsome Alcibiades (450-404 BCE), who was by some 20 years his junior.

In 432, Socrates and Alcibiades fought in the Battle of Potidaea, where the middle-aged plebeian and the young aristocrat became unlikely tent mates. In his Life of Alcibiades, Plutarch relates that “all were amazed to see [Alcibiades] eating, exercising, and tenting with Socrates, while he was harsh and stubborn with the rest of his lovers.” In Plato’s Symposium, Alcibiades reports that Socrates singlehandedly saved his life at Potidaea and, even after that, let him keep the prize for valour.

Plato’s Symposium is set in 416, some 16 years after the Battle of Potidaea, and just before the fateful Sicilian Expedition that led Alcibiades to defect to Sparta. The setting is a drinking party hosted by the playwright Agathon. After each of the guests, including Socrates, has made a speech in praise of love, a drunken Alcibiades stumbles in supported by a flute-girl. When Alcibiades entreats everyone to drink and match him in his drunkenness, the other guests object to “drinking as if we were thirsty” and suggest that Alcibiades instead make a speech in praise of Socrates.

Alcibiades says that Socrates always makes him admit that he is wasting his time on his political career while neglecting his several shortcomings. So he tears himself away from him as from the song of a siren and once again lets his love of popularity get the better of him. Socrates may look like a satyr and pose as ignorant, but, like the busts of Silenus [the tutor of Dionysus], he hides bright and beautiful images of the gods within him. Attracted by his wisdom, he tried several times to seduce him, but each time without success. Eventually, he turned the tables round and began to chase the older man, inviting him to dinner and on one occasion persuading him to stay the night. He then lay beside him and put it to him that, of all his lovers, he was the only one worthy of him, and he would be a fool to refuse him any favours if only he could make him into a better man.

Socrates replied in his usual, ironical manner:

Alcibiades, my friend, you have indeed an elevated aim if what you say is true, and if there really is in me any power by which you may become better; truly you must see in me some rare beauty of a kind infinitely higher than any which I see in you. And therefore, if you mean to share with me and to exchange beauty for beauty, you will have greatly the advantage of me; you will gain true beauty in return for appearance—like Diomedes, gold in exchange for brass.

After this, Alcibiades crept under the older man’s threadbare cloak and held him all night in his arms—but in the morning arose “as from the couch of a father or an elder brother.”

All this, says Alcibiades, took place before Potidaea. But how much of his drunken account is true, and how much invented by Plato to rehabilitate the reputation of Socrates? Socrates was executed, in part, for “corrupting the youth”.

In the little-known Alcibiades of Aeschines, Socrates relates a conversation that he once had with Alcibiades. Socrates tells his companion that, if he was at all able to improve Alcibiades, this was not through any knowledge or art that he possessed, but only by the force of the love [eros] that the youth had aroused in him.

Socrates and Phaedrus

The ostensible theme of Plato’s Phaedrus is love and pederasty, and the dialogue is full of flirtatious banter and sexual innuendo. Socrates persuades the young Phaedrus to pull out the speech on love that he is hiding under his cloak… The grass on which they lie down to read the speech is “like a pillow gently sloping to the head” … After Phaedrus has read the speech, Socrates says, “the effect on me was ravishing. And this I owe to you Phaedrus, for I observed you while reading to be in an ecstasy … and like you, my divine darling, I became inspired with a phrenzy.”

But although the Phaedrus appears, especially at first, to be about love, it is more properly about the education of the soul, which might be led to wisdom by the power of love or dialectic, although not, as Socrates argues, oratory or the dead [written] word. Just as the Phaedo used to be called, On the Soul, so the Phaedrus might have been called, On the Education of the Soul.

Despite his emphasis on Apollonian reason, Plato recognizes that the original impulse for philosophy arises out of something as irrational and Dionysian as love. However, this love, although fertile, is not of the reproductive kind, and must be reined in if it is to serve its purpose. For Plato, the body with its needs and pleasures are a source of distraction and confusion that hold us back from wisdom. In particular, the needs and desires of the body are why we waste ourselves going to work and to war, focussing always on particulars rather than the universals that are the objects of wisdom.

Although Socrates and Phaedrus openly flirt with each other, it is no coincidence that Plato has them sit beneath a chaste tree. According to Pliny the Elder, the matrons of Athens, at the time of the Thesmophoria [the festival of Demeter and Persephone], used to place the stems and leaves of the chaste in their bedding to temper their lust.

When, at the end of the dialogue, Socrates prays to the gods of the place, he calls himself “a temperate man”; and when he asks Phaedrus to complete the prayer, Phaedrus responds, “Ask the same for me, for friends have all things in common.” Thus, it is not as pederastic lovers but as friends and equals that they leave.

The genius of Plato is that the relationship between Socrates and Phaedrus is the very embodiment of the pure, ameliorating, elevating love of which they speak. And if this love begins as lust, this lust can be refined and sublimed on the ladder of love.

Neel Burton is author of The Gang of Three: Socrates, Plato, Aristotle.

In the 4th century BCE, Aristotle took to doing philosophy from the ground up.

The Gulf of Kalloni on Lesbos. Wikimedia commons/Public domain/NASA.

In around 370 BCE, the 13-year-old Aristotle lost both of his parents. When he turned 17, his guardian sent him to study at Plato’s Academy in Athens. He remained at the Academy for nearly 20 years, only leaving after Plato’s death in 347.

Now in his 37th year, Aristotle travelled to Assos (in modern-day Turkey) to join the court of Hermias of Atarneus, who had studied at the Academy. It seems he exerted a moderating influence on Hermias, who softened his harsh tyrannical rule. But in 344, Hermias was captured and tortured to death by a mercenary in the service of the Persian king Artaxerxes III.

After the death of Hermias, Aristotle’s student Theophrastus invited him to cross over to his native Lesbos. Together, they researched the flora and fauna of the island and its remarkable lagoon, then known as the Pyrrha lagoon, now as the Gulf of Kalloni. Supposedly, the more empirical Theophrastus concentrated on the flora while the more speculative Aristotle concentrated on the fauna, so that the one is remembered as the father of botany and the other as the father of zoology. In fact, Theophrastus also wrote on animals, and Aristotle also wrote on plants, but these works have been lost.

Aristotle’s biological works represent the first systematic study of biology and reveal a great deal about the man and his method. They are usually ignored, although they make up a quarter of his extant corpus, and were revered by naturalists such as Georges Cuvier and Charles Darwin—who, in the year of his death, 1882, wrote to William Ogle that “although Linnaeus and Cuvier have been my two gods … they were mere schoolboys to old Aristotle”.

In his biological works, Aristotle outlines more than five hundred species, some in more detail than others. He describes the chambered stomachs of ruminants, the social organization of bees, and the embryological development of a chick. He notices that some sharks are viviparous, and that whales and dolphins differ from other fish in breathing air and suckling their young. He infers that brood size decreases with body mass, whereas gestation period, and overall lifespan, increases. In a playful by the way, he remarks that “after drinking wine, the Indian parrot becomes more saucy than ever”.

For centuries, some of Aristotle’s accounts seemed too fanciful to be true, for instance, that the young of a dogfish grow inside their mother’s body, that the male of the river catfish guards the eggs for forty or fifty days after the female has left, or that male octopuses have a sperm-transferring tentacle that sometimes snaps off during mating. Each of these curiosities had to wait until the nineteenth century to be confirmed.

Unlike Plato, Aristotle privileged observation over theory. Like modern scientists, he began with a systematic gathering of data, and from this data attempted to infer explanations and make predictions. He carried out dissections and even rudimentary experiments such as cutting out the heart of a tortoise to discover that it could still move its limbs for a surprisingly long time.

However, he did not carry out anything like modern case-control studies, and relied uncritically on the lay testimony of beekeepers, fishermen, travellers, and the like. This lack of rigour led to some embarrassing errors, such as the claim that lions copulate back-to-back, while bears adopt the missionary position and hedgehogs stand on their hind legs to face each other. Or the claim that the female of several species has fewer teeth than the male. Among these species, he included humans, when he could simply have looked into his wife or daughter’s mouth.

Aristotle was not simply doing biology for the sake of science, but for the sake of philosophy. Like Plato, he was searching for universals, but this time from the ground up. “We should” he said, “venture on the study of every kind of animal without distaste; for each and all will reveal to us something natural and something beautiful.” An animal gives birth to the same animal because of its form or ordering pattern—an idea that resonates with modern genetics. Aristotle’s interest in biology informs his theory of the form, which in turn informs his entire physics and metaphysics.

Although he held that all animals have a form, and that the form is transmitted by the male, Aristotle also believed that many lower animals spontaneously generate: that eels grow out of mud, and insect maggots from putrefying flesh, even though Homer had said otherwise—when, in Iliad XIX, Achilles fears that flies will “breed worms” in the corpse of Patroclus. In Aristotle’s defence, he had observed that eels have no gonads, and could hardly have guessed that they only develop them in the course of their epic migration to the Sargasso Sea.

The earliest challenge to spontaneous generation came at late as 1668, when Francesco Redi covered jars of rotting flesh with gauze and found that only the control, that is, the uncovered jars, grew maggots.

The Gang of Three: Socrates, Plato, Aristotle is out this week.