A person is proud if he both is and thinks himself to be worthy of great things. If he both is and thinks himself to be worthy of small things he is not proud but temperate, for pride implies greatness. In terms of the vices, a person who thinks himself worthy of great things when he is unworthy of them is vain, whereas a person who thinks himself worthy of less than he is worthy of is pusillanimous. Compared to vanity, pusillanimity is both commoner and worse, and so more opposed to pride.
Although the proud person is an extreme in respect of the greatness of his claims, he is a mean in respect of their truthfulness. He is avid of his just deserts and particularly of honour, the prize of virtue and the greatest of external goods. He is moderately pleased to accept great honours conferred by good people, but he utterly despises honours from casual people and on trifling grounds. As a person who deserves more is better, the truly proud person is good, and as he is good, he is also rare. In sum, pride is a crown of the virtues; it is not found without them, and it makes them greater.
The proud person is liable to disdain and to despise, but as he thinks rightly, he does so justly, whereas the many disdain and despise at random. Although the proud person is dignified towards the great and the good, he is unassuming towards the middle classes; for it is a difficult and lofty thing to be superior to the former, but easy to be so to the latter, and a lofty bearing over the former is no mark of ill-breeding, but among humble people it is as vulgar as a display of strength against the weak.
Again, it is characteristic of the proud man not to aim at the things commonly held in honour, or the things in which others excel; to be sluggish and to hold back except where great honour or a great work is at stake, and to be a man of few deeds, but of great and notable ones. He must also be open in his hate and in his love (for to conceal one’s feelings, i.e. to care less for truth than for what people will think, is a coward’s part), and must speak and act openly; for he is free of speech because he is contemptuous, and he is given to telling the truth, except when he speaks in irony to the vulgar.
Intellectual virtues are developed through teaching, and moral virtues through habit. Moral virtues are not in our nature, but nor are they contrary to our nature, which is adapted to receive them. Sight and hearing are in our nature, and so they are given to us. In contrast, the arts and the moral virtues are not given to us, but are acquired through constant exercise. Just as a man becomes a sculptor by sculpting, so he becomes just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate acts, brave by doing brave acts.
It is impossible to define virtue with any precision, as the goodness of a feeling or action depends on individual circumstances. However, just as strength is destroyed by a defect or excess of exercise, so the virtues are destroyed by their defect or excess. For instance, he who flies from everything becomes a coward, whereas he who meets with every danger becomes rash. In contrast, courage is preserved by the mean.
Moral excellence is closely related to pleasure and pain: it is in pursuing and avoiding pleasure and pain that bad things are done and noble things not, and so 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, the bad wrong, about these, and especially about pleasure which is common to the animals and which is also found in the advantageous and in the noble. A good person feels pleasure at the most beautiful or noble (kalos) actions, whereas a person who is not good often finds his perceptions of what is most pleasant to be misleading. It is harder to fight with pleasure than with anger, but both art and virtue are concerned with what is harder, and even the good is better when it is harder.
A person may do a seemingly virtuous action by chance or under compulsion. His action is truly virtuous only if (1) he knows that the action is virtuous, (2) he chooses to do the action for the sake of being virtuous, (3) his action proceeds from a firm and unchangeable character. In short, an action is truly virtuous if it is such as a virtuous person would do.
But most people do not do these, but take refuge in theory and think they are being philosophers and will become good in this way, behaving somewhat like patients who listen attentively to their doctors, but do none of the things they are ordered to do.
There are three things that are found in the soul, passions, faculties, and dispositions. As the virtues are neither passions nor faculties, they must be dispositions. In light of this, virtue can be defined as a disposition to aim at the intermediate between deficiency and excess, or, in other words, as a disposition to aim at the mean, which, unlike deficiency or excess, 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 alone, 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, and in the right way, for murder is bad in itself and neither a deficiency nor an excess. The principle virtues along with their corresponding vices are listed in the table.
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 not only because the first vice is more similar to the virtue than the contrary vice, but also because the contrary vice is the more common. Rashness is more similar to courage than cowardice, which is more common than rashness, and prodigality is more similar to liberality than meanness, which is more common than prodigality. Hence people oppose not rashness but cowardice to courage, and not prodigality but meanness to liberality.
It is no easy task to be good. For a person to increase his likelihood of hitting the mean, he should (1) avoid the vice that is furthest from the virtue, (2) consider his vices and drag himself to their contrary extremes, (3) be wary of pleasure which clouds judgement and leads astray. The person may miss the mean by a little, for instance, he may get angry too soon or not enough, and still be praised for being either manly or good-tempered. It is only if he deviates more widely from the mean that he becomes blameworthy; how widely is difficult to determine, as it depends on the individual circumstances and on how they are perceived.
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 the 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.
One swallow does not make a summer, nor does one day; and so too one day, or a short time, does not make a man blessed and happy.
For Aristotle, a thing is best understood by looking at its end, goal, or purpose (telos). For instance, the end of a knife is to cut, and it is by grasping this that one best understands what a knife is; the end of medicine is good health, and it is by grasping this that one best understands what medicine is (or ideally should be). If one does this for some time, it soon becomes apparent that some ends are subordinate to higher ends, which are themselves subordinate to still higher ends.
If, then, there is some end of the things we do, which we desire for its own sake (everything else being desired for the sake of this) … clearly this must be the good and the chief good. Will not the knowledge of it, then, have a great influence on life? Shall we not, like archers who have a mark to aim at, be more likely to hit upon what is right?
The science that has for object the chief good, and whose end therefore includes that of all the others, is none other than the political art. To obtain the chief good for one person is fine enough, but to obtain it for the state is finer and more godlike. In inquiring into the chief good, care must be taken not to be too precise: fine and just actions admit of much variety and fluctuation of opinion, and ‘it is the mark of an educated man to look for precision in each class of things just so far as the nature of the subject admits’.
People agree that the chief good is happiness (eudaimonia), but the many and the wise disagree as to its nature. The many and vulgar identify happiness with sensual pleasure, but a life of sensual pleasure is no better than that of a beast. People of superior refinement and active disposition identify happiness with honour, but honour is merely a mark of virtue, and one that is reliant upon the recognition of others. Neither can happiness be identified with virtue itself, for then happiness would be compatible with a lifetime of sleep or inactivity or with the greatest sufferings and misfortunes.
According to Plato there is such a thing as the Form of the Good in which all good things share. However, this notion should be rejected as ‘piety requires us to honour truth above our friends’. Aristotle raises eight objections to the Theory of the Forms, but claims that this is not the place to investigate it. He revisits the subject in the Metaphysics.
Returning to the search for the chief good, a goal that is an end in itself is more worthy of pursuit than one that is merely a means to an end, and a goal that is never a means to an end but only ever an end in itself is more worthy of pursuit than one that is or can be both.
Now such a thing happiness, above all else, is held to be; for this we choose always for self and never for the sake of something else, but honour, pleasure, reason, and every virtue we choose indeed for themselves (for if nothing resulted from them we should still choose each of them), but we choose them also for the sake of happiness, judging that by means of them we shall be happy. Happiness, on the other hand, no one chooses for the sake of these, nor, in general, for anything other than itself.
All well and good, but what does happiness actually consist in? It is by understanding the distinctive function of a thing that one can understand its essence. For instance, one cannot understand what it is to be a gardener unless one can understand that the distinctive function of a gardener is ‘to tend to a garden with a certain degree of skill’. Whereas human beings need nourishment like plants and have sentience like animals, their distinctive function is their unique capacity to reason. Thus the Supreme Good, or Happiness, for human beings is to lead a life that encourages the exercise and development of reason and the practice of virtue. Happiness resides not so much in the possession as in the practice of reason and virtue, for just as it is not the strong and beautiful but those who compete well who win at the Olympic Games, so it is not the wise and virtuous but those who act well who win – and rightly win – the noble and good things in life. Their life is also more pleasant, as virtuous actions are pleasant by nature, and all the more pleasant still to the lover of virtue.
Now for most men their pleasures are in conflict with one another because these are not by nature pleasant, but the lovers of what is noble find pleasant the things that are by nature pleasant; and virtuous actions are such, so that these are pleasant for such men as well as in their own nature. Their life, therefore, has no further need of pleasure as a sort of adventitious charm, but has its pleasure in itself.
A person’s good or bad fortune can play a part in determining his happiness; for instance, happiness can be affected by such factors as material circumstances, social position, and even physical appearance. Yet, by living life to the full according to his essential nature as a rational being, a person is bound to become happy regardless of his good or bad fortune. For this reason, happiness is more a question of behaviour and of habit – of excellence and of virtue – than of luck. A person who cultivates reason and who lives according to rational principles is able to bear his misfortunes with equanimity, and thus can never be said to be truly unhappy. Even the greatest misfortunes can be borne with resignation, not through insensibility to pain but through nobility and greatness of soul.
With regard to the soul, it comprises a rational and an irrational part. The irrational part has a vegetative element that is concerned with nutrition and growth, and an appetitive element that contains a person’s impulses and that more or less obeys the rational part. If the rational part is strong, as in the virtuous person, it is able to exert a greater degree of control over the appetitive element of the irrational part. Similarly, there are two kinds of virtue, one that pertains to the intellect and that consists in philosophic and practical wisdom (dianoetic virtues), and another that pertains to the character and that consists in liberality and temperance (ethical or moral virtues). A person may be praised for either or both kinds of virtue.
Adapted from Aristotle’s Universe: A Primer on Aristotle
Live and die in Aristotle’s works.
– Christopher Marlowe, Faust
After Sulla removed Aristotle’s esoteric writings to Rome, they were edited and published by the peripatetic philosopher Andronicus of Rhodes. By late antiquity they had almost fallen out of circulation, hampered by the rise of the Church and of neo-Platonism, the fall of Rome, and the loss of the Greek language amongst educated people. In the early sixth century, the Christian philosopher Boethius translated Aristotle’s works on logic into Latin, and, for centuries to come, these were the only significant portions of Aristotle’s writings (or indeed of Greek philosophy) available in the Occident. However, the study of Aristotle continued unabated in the Orient, in the Byzantine Empire and more particularly in the Abbasid Caliphate, where Persian and Arab philosophers such as Al-Farabi, Avicenna, and Averroes wrote extensive commentaries on Aristotle, whom they referred to deferentially as The First Teacher.
In the twelfth century, this Aristotelian fervour spilt over into Christian Europe. In the Condemnations of 1210–1277, the Bishops of Paris prohibited Aristotle’s physical writings on the grounds of heterodoxy, but without too much success. In the thirteenth century William of Moerbeke produced a Latin translation of Aristotle’s writings from the original Greek text rather than from Arabic translations, the first complete Latin translation faithful both to the spirit and to the letter of Aristotle. At around the same time, Albert the Great and his pre-eminent student Thomas Aquinas, the Doctor Angelus, sought to reconcile Christian thought with Aristotle, whom they and other scholastic thinkers referred to simply as The Philosopher. Under the aegis of the Church, Aristotelian ideas achieved such prominence and such propriety as to be assimilated to God-given gospel, to be overturned only centuries later by pioneers like Galileo, Descartes, and Newton.
Aristotle is without a doubt one of the greatest philosophers of all time, and, along with Plato, one of the most influential people in Western history. Raphael’s Renaissance masterpiece, The School of Athens, depicts Plato and Aristotle walking side by side, surrounded by a number of other philosophers and personalities of antiquity. An elderly Plato is holding a copy of his Timaeus and pointing vertically to the lofty vault above their heads, whilst a younger Aristotle is holding a copy of the Nicomachean Ethics and gesturing horizontally towards the descending steps at their feet. Plato was chiefly interested in moral philosophy, and held natural philosophy, that is, science, to be an inferior and unworthy type of knowledge. His idealism culminated in the Theory of the Forms, according to which knowledge of the truth cannot be acquired through the sense experience of imperfect particulars, but only through the rational contemplation of their universal essences or Forms. Aristotle flatly rejected the Theory of the Forms and emphasised that all philosophy should be grounded in the simple observation of particulars. In so doing, he laid the foundations for the scientific method, and his meticulous zoological observations remained unsurpassed for several centuries. His moral philosophy prevailed throughout the ancient and mediaeval periods, exerting a profound influence on Christian thought, and returned to due prominence in the twentieth century with the resurgence of virtue ethics. His extant works, to say nothing of those that have been lost, cover such a wide range of topics, from aesthetics to astronomy and from politics to psychology, as to constitute a quasi encyclopaedia of Greek knowledge. Some of his most important works are Physics, Metaphysics, Nicomachean Ethics, Politics, On the Soul, Poetics, and, of course, the Organon, with which he created the field of logic and dominated it so thoroughly and for so long that even Kant in the eighteenth century thought that he had said the last word upon it.
More than any other figure in Western history, Aristotle is the embodiment of knowledge and of learning. His ideas have shaped centuries of thought and are still keenly pored over by all those who seek to understand Western civilisation, or simply to inhabit one of the greatest minds of all time.
Plato and Aristotle both gave an important place to friendship in the good life; Plato devoted the major part of three books (the Lysis, Phaedrus, and Symposium) to friendship and to love, and in Book VIII of the Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle lavished extravagant praise upon the Greek concept of friendship or philia, which included not only voluntary relationships but also those relationships that hold between the members of a family. Friendship, says Aristotle, is a virtue which is ‘most necessary with a view to living … for without friends no one would choose to live, though he had all other goods’.
If friendship is so important to the good life, then it is important to ask the question, what is friendship? According to Aristotle, for a person to be friends with another ‘it is necessary that [they] bear good will to each other and wish good things for each other, without this escaping their notice’. A person may bear good will to another for one of three reasons, that he is good (that is, rational and virtuous), that he is pleasant, or that he is useful. While Aristotle leaves room for the idea that relationships based on advantage alone or pleasure alone can give rise to friendships, he believes that such relationships have a smaller claim to be called friendships than those that are based partly or wholly on virtue. ‘Those who wish good things to their friends for the sake of the latter are friends most of all, because they do so because of their friends themselves, not coincidentally.’ Friendships that are based partly or wholly on virtue are desirable not only because they are associated with a high degree of mutual benefit, but also because they are associated with companionship, dependability, and trust. More important still, to be in such a friendship and to seek out the good of one’s friend is to exercise reason and virtue, which is the distinctive function of human beings, and which amounts to happiness.
For Aristotle, an act of friendship is undertaken both for the good of one’s friend and for the good of oneself, and there is no reason to think that the one precludes the other. In any case, to have a perfect friend is like to have ‘another self’, since perfect friends make the same choices as each other and each one’s happiness adds to that of the other. Unfortunately, the number of people with whom one can sustain a perfect friendship is very small, first, because reason and virtue are not to be found in everyone (never, for example, in young people, who are not yet wise enough to be virtuous), and, second, because a perfect friendship can only be created and sustained if a pair of friends spend a great deal of exclusive quality time together. Thus, even if one lived entirely surrounded by virtuous people, one would only ever have the time for at most a small handful of perfect friends.
The ideal of perfect friendship may strike the modern reader as being somewhat elitist, but Aristotle is surely right in holding that the best kinds of friendship are both rare and demanding. If the best kinds of friendship are those that are based on virtue, then this is above all because such friendships call upon the exercise of reason and virtue, which is the distinctive function of human beings, and which amounts to happiness. However, it could be that the distinctive function of human beings is not the exercise of reason and virtue, but the capacity to form loving and meaningful relationships. If this is the case, then friendships that are based on virtue are even more important to the good life than Aristotle thinks.
Despite the extravagant praise that he lavishes upon friendship, Aristotle is quite clear that the best and happiest life is not the life spent in friendship, but the life spent in the contemplation of those things that are most true and therefore most beautiful and most dependable. There is a contradiction here: if the best life is a life of contemplation, then friendship is either superfluous or inimical to the best life, and therefore undeserving of the high praise that Aristotle lavishes upon it. It may be, as Aristotle tentatively suggests, that friendship is needed because it leads to contemplation, or that contemplation is only possible some of the time and friendship is needed the rest of the time, or even that a life of friendship is just as good as a life of contemplation. So much for Aristotle, one might say. Plato also gives an important place to friendship in the good life…