Walking with Aristotle: Nicomachean Ethics I.13-II.4

by Peter Saint-Andre


In Book I, Chapter 13 of the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle turns in earnest to an investigation of ἀρετή - traditionally translated as 'virtue', more recently by some scholars as 'excellence', and by yours truly as 'thriving'. I have my reasons for this novel rendering, among them a similarity between the ancient Greek verb ἀρετάω (attested several times in Homer's Odyssey) and the core meaning of the English verb thrive as "to grow or develop well" (OED). Interestingly, the OED points out that thrive can also mean "to be successful or eminent in arms or war", which is akin to ἀρετή in the sense of martial strength and excellence (cf. Latin virtūs).

Thus to acquire and apply the thrivings of mind and character is to grow and develop well in your mental and behavioral traits and practices. Just as physical exercise gets your body in great shape, so intellectual and ethical exercise gets your soul in great shape.

But what is the basic nature of the soul or psyche - i.e., your essential aliveness as a human being? Aristotle argues that although human faculties are inseparable from each other in nature (i.e., in actual human beings), we can distinguish three "parts" or aspects of human aliveness. The first is directed to the meeting of physical needs like growth, nutrition, and metabolism; this part, which we have in common with plants and animals, is entirely without thinking-and-speech (λόγος). The second is directed to perception, locomotion, the satisfaction of impulses and wants, the pursuit of pleasure, the avoidance of pain, etc.; this part, which we have in common with other animals, can in humans be guided or persuaded by λόγος to do the right thing. The third engages in the guiding and persuading of the second, which it can do because it has a conceptual understanding of the sources and causes of human nature and the human good; this is thinking-and-speaking pure and simple, i.e., reason.

The development of mind and character is closely bound up with several phenomena we'll be exploring as we walk with Aristotle through the Nicomachean Ethics. Here he emphasizes the roles of learning by doing, experience and maturation over the course of your lifetime, and the formation of habits or practices through enculturation during childhood (which, he says, makes all the difference). Although later he will strongly feature choice, commitment, deliberation, and wisdom, even early on he talks about the importance of sizing up and adapting your behavior to a particular situation; this gives the lie to those scholars who have claimed that habituation or enculturation is a mindless process of rote imitation. For Aristotle, no truly human activity can ever be mindless.

In II.2 and II.3, he further observes that over time the development of mind and character can be stunted and impeded by going beyond or falling short of what's proportionate in each situation, while feeling and acting in proportion can produce, develop, and preserve the relevant traits. The key is to be satisfied with the enjoyment that inherently accompanies the activity itself, whereas avidly pursuing pleasures or cravenly avoiding pains in isolation from those activities will inevitably lead you astray. As we saw in our discussion of Nicomachean Ethics I.7, activity (ἐνέργεια) is central to human fulfillment (εὐδαιμονία). Further, it is by engaging in the right sorts of activity that you strengthen your ethical muscles, just as the person who engages in physical exercise makes themselves more fit for such exercise.

Finally, in II.4 Aristotle wonders how it is that one acquires a thriving of character. Don't you need to be temperate already (for example) in order to act in a temperate way? Well, he says, it could be as it is in the crafts, where you slowly learn the craft under the guidance of someone who has already acquired the relevant skills. Yet character traits differ from crafts because knowing what to do is the least of the matter: more importantly, you need to commit to temperate actions in themselves (not in order to impress people or whatever) and you need to do so steadfastly, such that you're not easily swayed from acting temperately. You become this way by consistently performing temperate actions: there's no way you can become temperate by not acting temperately.

Yet Aristotle says most people in fact do try to avoid acting temperately and justly and so on - they'd rather talk than do. Even worse, they think that they're living philosophically and taking life seriously by engaging in idle talking and theorizing, whereas what they really need to do is apply the right treatment (θεραπεία, whence our word 'therapy') to themselves so that they can get their soul in good shape.

In the next few chapters, Aristotle will provide a more complete analysis of the nature of character traits - a topic we'll turn to next.

(Cross-posted at philosopher.coach.)


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