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 his Poetics, Aristotle examines what makes a story work.

The theme of Aristotle’s Poetics is not poetry as we now conceive of it, but the imitative arts. The first book treats especially of tragedy and epic poetry. Because the second book addressed comedy, it was less likely to be recopied in the monasteries and came to be lost. What remains, Book 1, is the oldest extant work of dramatic and literary theory, and could also have been entitled, What Makes a Story Work or, How to Write a Good Story

Fittingly or not, Aristotle approached poetry in the same scientific manner that he approached biology or physics, gathering, analyzing, and categorizing a ream of data. From this digested data, he attempted to abstract the deep psychological principles that underlie the best stories. Although he examined many plays, he kept on returning to the Oedipus Rex of Sophocles, which he upheld as a paradigm of tragedy.

One might wonder why a great logician such as Aristotle turned his mind to the imitative arts. In Islamic scholarship, the Rhetoric and Poetics came to be appended to the compilation of Aristotle’s logical works, or Organon, and it is true that the three books lie on a spectrum: whereas the Organon is about uncovering the truth, the Rhetoric and Poetics are about instilling it in less philosophical types.

For all that, Aristotle does not look down on poetry, and, in fact, regards it more highly than history. Poetry, he says, ‘is a more philosophical and a higher thing than history: for poetry tends to express the universal, history the particular…’

Although Aristotle himself is not nearly so prescriptive, the Poetics inspired the three classical unities of action, place, and time, according to which a tragedy should consist of a single action that unfolds in a single place over the course of a single day. These rules held sway from the sixteenth century for three centuries and were rigidly observed especially by French playwrights such as Pierre Corneille and Jean Racine.

How to write the perfect story

1. Ultimately, a story should be about people. Aristotle makes the point that even for abstract forms of imitation such as dancing and flute-playing, the objects of imitation are men. In tragedy and epic poetry, people are represented as better than in real life, in comedy, as worse. The inferior characters of comedy should not be bad in the full sense but merely ridiculous.

2. The hero should be illustrious, and better than average without being virtuous. The hero should be neither extremely good nor extremely bad. But although not virtuous, he should be illustrious, like Oedipus, Thyestes, and their ilk. The hero should never be worse than the average person and is often significantly better.

3. The hero’s character should be consistent. Actions should succeed one another with necessity or probability to provide insight into general principles of conduct. Consistency of character ensures that the plot’s unravelling arises out of the plot itself and not from improbable actions or divine intervention. The poet should go so far as to put herself into the shoes of her characters, enact their actions, and feel their emotions. To be able to do this, the poet must have a special gift, or else a strain of madness. 

4. But there should also be room for surprise. Tragedy is most effective at arousing feelings of fear and pity if actions, although credible, come as something of a surprise. The outright fantastical ought to be avoided but might be justified if it makes the work more striking—in which case a probable impossibility is preferable to an improbable possibility.

5. The story should be plot-driven. Although a story should be about people, it is not character but actions that determine failure and success. Life consists in action, and the end of life is not a quality but a mode of action. This cryptic remark reflects Aristotle’s view that the end of life is happiness, and that happiness is not a state but an activity.

6. Plot should consist of three parts. The poet should outline the plot before filling its episodes. The outline of the Odyssey could fit into just three sentences. Plot should have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Since beauty depends on magnitude as well as order, each of these parts must be of a certain magnitude. Plot should be long enough for the main character to transition from fortune to misfortune or vice versa, but not so long as to lose the audience. Pity and fear should be inspired by the plot itself, not by mere spectacle. Actions that most inspire pity and fear are those that take place between intimates, rather than between strangers or enemies.

7. Plot should consist of a single narrative. Unity of action does not imply unity of the main character. For instance, the Odyssey does not include every adventure that Odysseus ever embarked upon, but only those that form part of a single, if broad, narrative. Plotting should be tight. If a thing’s presence or absence makes no difference, that thing is not an organic part of the whole and ought to be left out.

8. Ideally, reversal of fortune should coincide with recognition. The plot of a perfect tragedy is complex and imitates actions that inspire pity and fear. In a complex plot, transition occurs through reversal of fortune [peripeteia] or recognition [anagnorisis]. The best transition combines peripeteia and anagnorisis, as when Oedipus finds out who he is. A third plot element is the scene of suffering, which involves a destructive or painful action such as murder or mutilation.

9. Reversal of fortune should not be caused by vice, but by error or frailty. Peripeteia should not involve a good person passing from prosperity to adversity, since this inspires shock more than pity and fear. Nor should it involve a bad person passing from adversity to prosperity, since there is no tragedy in that. Nor again should it involve the downfall of an utter rogue, which although satisfying, does not inspire pity and fear, for pity is inspired by unmerited misfortune, and fear by the misfortune of one who is our similar. Instead, it should involve a person who is neither particularly good nor bad, and whose misfortune is brought about by some great error or frailty [hamartia].

10. Style is also important, although less so than character and plot. Style ought to be clear without being mean. Language can be elevated by the judicious use of strange words, compounded words, and, above all, metaphor. The poet should speak of herself as little as possible.

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