Walking with Aristotle: Nicomachean Ethics II.5-9

by Peter Saint-Andre


Following up on his initial inquiry into ἀρετή, Aristotle digs further into thrivings of character. Are they feelings or emotions like anger, fear, and jealousy? No, because those are ephemeral motions in the psyche that we experience without having chosen them, which is why people aren't praised or blamed for what they happen to feel. Are they capacities or predispositions? No, because although an irritable person (say) might be predisposed to be annoyed, irritability is something like a temporary mood founded in a capacity that everyone has. Are they stable traits (ἕξεις)? Yes, because traits are formed through a long series of actions and commitments and therefore can be described as chosen; this is why people are responsible for their character. It is the serious (σπουδαῖος) thrivings and unworthy (φαῦλος) failings of character that cause us to actively conduct ourselves well or badly in relation to the feelings, all of which involve either pleasure (e.g., affection) or pain (e.g., hatred).

Every thriving of character brings the psyche into a better condition and a state of completion, since it activates the relevant human capacities (such as rationality and sociality). It also makes such a person's activities serious (σπουδαῖος), since a thriving of character comes fully to life and to completion in action. The underlying principle is that when we conduct ourselves badly in relation to the feelings, we overdo it (e.g., feeling too much pity) or underdo it (e.g., not feeling enough confidence) and this pushes us off balance, whereas reacting proportionately preserves and reinforces a good condition of the soul. When we attain this kind of balance-point, we get things right (κατορθοῦται).

Tangentially, Aristotle notes that this kind of account (λόγος) might be true in general, but it's especially important that we apply it to particulars. Thus in II.7 he goes beyond the traditional Greek "four virtues" - courage, moderation, justice, and wisdom - by briefly previewing a whole list of thrivings such as generosity, gentleness, and truthfulness. (We need not dwell on these now, since he will go through them in great detail later on.)

Given the many domains of action and feeling in which we might need to find the balance-point between falling short and going too far, developing good character could be difficult; indeed, Aristotle implies that it's the task (ἔργον) of a lifetime. Yet he does offer a few suggestions at this point, such as deliberately aiming away from your natural tendencies (as for instance I've done over the years in order to cultivate greater empathy) and paying close attention to particulars so that you can correctly size up the situations you find yourself in. As we'll see, policies of this kind are part of practical wisdom or what we moderns might call situational judgment.

This concludes our walk through Book II of the Nicomachean Ethics. Next time we'll look at Aristotle's analysis in Book III of what makes human actions voluntary, willing, and chosen.

(Cross-posted at philosopher.coach.)


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