Philosophy 176 - 9.4.2 Aristotelianism

A painting by Gerard Hoet before 1733 shows Olympias presenting the young Alexander the Great, mother of Alexander, the bride of Zeus, and his disciple to Aristotle.
Figure 9.9 This painting by Gerard Hoet depicts Olympias presenting the young Alexander the Great to Aristotle. Aristotle traveled to Macedonian in 343 BCE to tutor the 13-year-old boy, Alexander, who would later become Alexander the Great. (credit: “Olympias presenting the young Alexander the Great to Aristotle” by Gerard Hoet/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

Aristotle (384–322 BCE) was a preeminent ancient Greek philosopher. He studied with Plato (ca. 429–347 BCE) at the Academy, a fraternal organization where participants pursued knowledge and self-development. After Plato’s death, Aristotle traveled, tutored the boy who would later become Alexander the Great, and among other things, established his own place of learning, dedicated to the god Apollo (Shields 2020).

Aristotle spent his life in the pursuit of knowledge and wisdom. His extant works today represent only a portion of his total life’s work, much of which was lost to history. During his life, Aristotle was, for example, principal to the creation of logic, created the first system of classification for animals, and wrote on diverse topics of philosophical interest. Along with his teacher, Plato, Aristotle is considered one of the pillars of Western philosophy.

Human Flourishing as the Goal of Human Action

In the first line of Book I of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, he observes that “[every] art and every inquiry, and similarly every action and pursuit, is thought to aim at some good” (Aristotle [350 BCE] 1998, 1094a). If everything we do aims at some good, he argues, then there must be a final or highest good that is the end of all action (life’s telos), which is eudaimonia, the flourishing life (Aristotle [350 BCE] 1998, 1097a34–b25). Everything else we pursue is pursued for the sake of this end.

Connections

See the chapter on epistemology for more on the topic of eudaimonia.

Nicomachean Ethics is a practical exploration of the flourishing life and how to live it. Aristotle, like other ancient Greek and Roman philosophers (e.g., Plato and the Stoics), asserts that virtuous development is central to human flourishing. Virtue (or aretê) means “excellence. We determine something’s virtue, Aristotle argued, by identifying its peculiar function or purpose because “the good and the ‘well’ is thought to reside in the function” (Aristotle [350 BCE] 1998, 1097b25–1098a15). We might reasonably say, for example, that a knife’s function is to cut. A sharp knife that cuts extremely well is an excellent (or virtuous) knife. The sharp knife realizes its function and embodies excellence (or it is an excellent representation of knife-ness).

Aristotle assumed our rational capacity makes us distinct from other (living) things. He identifies rationality as the unique function of human beings and says that human virtue, or excellence, is therefore realized through the development or perfection of reason. For Aristotle, virtuous development is the transformation and perfection of character in accordance with reason. While most thinkers (like Aristotle and Kant) assign similar significance to reason, it is interesting to note how they arrive at such different theories.

Deliberation, Practical Wisdom, and Character

To exercise or possess virtue is to demonstrate excellent character. For ancient Greek and Roman philosophers, the pursuit of intentional, directed self-development to cultivate virtues is the pursuit of excellence. Someone with a virtuous character is consistent, firm, self-controlled, and well-off. Aristotle characterized the virtuous character state as the mean between two vice states, deficiency and excess. He thought each person naturally tends toward one of the extreme (or vice) states. We cultivate virtue when we bring our character into alignment with the “mean or intermediate state with regard to” feelings and actions, and in doing so we become “well off in relation to our feelings and actions” (Homiak 2019).

Being virtuous requires more than simply developing a habit or character trait. An individual must voluntarily choose the right action, the virtuous state; know why they chose it; and do so from a consistent, firm character. To voluntarily choose virtue requires reflection, self-awareness, and deliberation. Virtuous actions, Aristotle claims, should “accord with the correct reason” (Aristotle [350 BCE] 1998, 1103b30). The virtuous person chooses what is right after deliberation that is informed by practical wisdom and experience. Through a deliberative process we identify the choice that is consistent with the mean state.

The Role of Habit

Aristotle proposed that humans “are made perfect by habit” (Aristotle [350 BCE] 1998, 1103a10–33). Habit therefore plays an important role in our virtuous development. When we practice doing what’s right, we get better at choosing the right action in different circumstances. Through habituation we gain practice and familiarity, we bring about dispositions or tendencies, and we gain the requisite practical experience to identify the reasons why a certain action should be chosen in diverse situations. Habit, in short, allows us to gain important practical experience and a certain familiarity with choosing and doing the right thing. The more we reinforce doing the right thing, the more we grow accustomed to recognizing what’s right in different circumstances. Through habit we become more aware of which action is supported by reason and why, and get better at choosing it.

Habit and repetition develop dispositions. In Nicomachean Ethics, for example, Aristotle reminds us of the importance of upbringing. A good upbringing will promote the formation of positive dispositions, making one’s tendencies closer to the mean state. A bad upbringing, in contrast, will promote the formation of negative dispositions, making one’s tendencies farther from the mean state (Aristotle [350 BCE] 1998, 1095b5).

Read Like a Philosopher

Artistotle on Virtue

Read this passage from from Book II of Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, considering what Aristotle means when he states that moral virtues come about as a result of habit. How should individuals make use of the two types of virtue to become virtuous?

Virtue, then, being of two kinds, intellectual and moral, intellectual virtue in the main owes both its birth and its growth to teaching (for which reason it requires experience and time), while moral virtue comes about as a result of habit, whence also its name (ethike) is one that is formed by a slight variation from the word ethos (habit). From this it is also plain that none of the moral virtues arises in us by nature; for nothing that exists by nature can form a habit contrary to its nature. For instance, the stone which by nature moves downwards cannot be habituated to move upwards, not even if one tries to train it by throwing it up ten thousand times; nor can fire be habituated to move downwards, nor can anything else that by nature behaves in one way be trained to behave in another. Neither by nature, then, nor contrary to nature do the virtues arise in us; rather we are adapted by nature to receive them, and are made perfect by habit.

Again, of all the things that come to us by nature we first acquire the potentiality and later exhibit the activity (this is plain in the case of the senses; for it was not by often seeing or often hearing that we got these senses, but on the contrary we had them before we used them, and did not come to have them by using them); but the virtues we get by first exercising them, as also happens in the case of the arts as well. For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them, e.g. men become builders by building and lyreplayers by playing the lyre; so too we become just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate acts, brave by doing brave acts.

This is confirmed by what happens in states; for legislators make the citizens good by forming habits in them, and this is the wish of every legislator, and those who do not effect it miss their mark, and it is in this that a good constitution differs from a bad one.

Again, it is from the same causes and by the same means that every virtue is both produced and destroyed, and similarly every art; for it is from playing the lyre that both good and bad lyreplayers are produced. And the corresponding statement is true of builders and of all the rest; men will be good or bad builders as a result of building well or badly. For if this were not so, there would have been no need of a teacher, but all men would have been born good or bad at their craft. This, then, is the case with the virtues also; by doing the acts that we do in our transactions with other men we become just or unjust, and by doing the acts that we do in the presence of danger, and being habituated to feel fear or confidence, we become brave or cowardly. The same is true of appetites and feelings of anger; some men become temperate and good-tempered, others self-indulgent and irascible, by behaving in one way or the other in the appropriate circumstances. Thus, in one word, states of character arise out of like activities. This is why the activities we exhibit must be of a certain kind; it is because the states of character correspond to the differences between these. It makes no small difference, then, whether we form habits of one kind or of another from our very youth; it makes a very great difference, or rather all the difference.

Social Relationships and Friendship

Aristotle was careful to note in Nicomachean Ethics that virtuous development alone does not make a flourishing life, though it is central to it. In addition to virtuous development, Aristotle thought things like success, friendships, and other external goods contributed to eudaimonia.

In Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle points out that humans are social (or political) beings (Aristotle [350 BCE] 1998, 1097b10). It’s not surprising, then, that, like Confucius, Aristotle thinks social relations are important for our rational and virtuous development.

When we interact with others who have common goals and interests, we are more likely to progress and realize our rational powers. Social relations afford us opportunities to learn, practice, and engage in rational pursuits with other people. The ancient Greek schools (e.g., Plato’s Academy, Aristotle’s Lyceum, and Epicurus’s Gardens) exemplify the ways individuals benefit from social relations. These ancient schools offered a meeting place where those interested in knowledge and the pursuit of wisdom could participate in these activities together.

Through social relations, we also develop an important sense of community and take an interest in the flourishing of others. We see ourselves as connected to others, and through our interactions we develop social virtues like generosity and friendliness (Homiak 2019). Moreover, as we develop social virtues and gain a deeper understanding of the reasons why what is right, is right, we realize that an individual’s ability to flourish and thrive is improved when the community flourishes. Social relations and political friendships are useful for increasing the amount of good we can do for the community (Kraut 2018).

Friendship

The important role Aristotle assigns to friendship in a flourishing life is evidenced by the fact that he devotes two out of the ten books of Nicomachean Ethics (Books VIII and IX) to a discussion of it. He notes that it would be odd, “when one assigns all good things to the happy man, not to assign friends, who are thought the greatest of external goods” (Aristotle [350 BCE] 1998, 1169a35–b20). Aristotle distinguishes between incidental friendships and perfect friendships. Incidental friendships are based on and defined by either utility or pleasure. Such friendships are casual relationships where each person participates only because they get something (utility or pleasure) from it. These friendships neither contribute to our happiness nor do they foster virtuous development.

Unlike incidental friendships, perfect friendships are relationships that foster and strengthen our virtuous development. The love that binds a perfect friendship is based on the good or on the goodness of the characters of the individuals involved. Aristotle believed that perfect friends wish each other well simply because they love each other and want each other to do well, not because they expect something (utility or pleasure) from the other. He points out that “those who wish well to their friends for their sake are most truly friends” (Aristotle [350 BCE] 1998, 1156a27–b17). Aristotle argues that the happy man needs (true) friends because such friendships make it possible for them to “contemplate worthy [or virtuous] actions and actions that are [their] own” (Aristotle [350 BCE] 1998, 1169b20–1170a6). This affords the good individual the opportunity to contemplate worthy actions that are not their own (i.e., they are their friend’s) while still thinking of these actions as in some sense being their own because their friend is another self. On Aristotle’s account, we see a true friend as another self because we are truly invested in our friend’s life and “we ought to wish what is good for his sake” (Aristotle [350 BCE] 1998, 1155b17–1156a5).

Perfect friendships afford us opportunities to grow and develop, to better ourselves—something we do not get from other relationships. Aristotle therefore argues that a “certain training in virtue arises also from the company of the good” (Aristotle [350 BCE] 1998, 1170a6–30). Our perfect friend provides perspective that helps us in our development and contributes to our happiness because we get to participate in and experience our friend’s happiness as our own. Perhaps it is not surprising, then, that Aristotle considered true friends “the greatest of external goods” (Aristotle [350 BCE] 1998, 1169a35–b20).

This lesson has no exercises.

The content of this course has been taken from the free Philosophy textbook by Openstax