Walking with Aristotle: Nicomachean Ethics III.1-5

by Peter Saint-Andre


As mentioned last time, toward the end of Book II of the Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle states that character traits are things that we choose. In the first half of Book III, he provides a deeper analysis of related issues: the extent to which actions are willing or unwilling, the nature of deliberation and choice, etc. Although the discussion is somewhat technical in spots and has given scholars much to chew on, in the end it has a number of practical implications.

The basic question is this: are you the ultimate source (ἀρχή) of your actions and character traits? Aristotle is not impressed by arguments to the effect that you're not to blame if you do bad things while in a highly emotional state such as rage (because you could have controlled your anger) or while in ignorance of the right way to act (because it's your responsibility as an adult human being to understand the good). At root, you have a choice about how to live: it's not enough to merely wish for virtue and happiness and fulfillment; instead you need to make beautifully right commitments in life and actively deliberate about how to realize those commitments. This requires discernment and reflection to close the gap between the ideal and the real - or, as he puts it, to make your goal or completion (τέλος) of finding fulfillment (εὐδαιμονία) actually determinate in particular actions. The worthy person who takes life seriously finds a way to do this, whereas the unworthy person who tolerates injustice or wallows in decadence finds excuses for doing the wrong thing. One such excuse is the misguided belief that repeated action of a certain kind, whether good or bad, won't lead to the formation of a character trait; by contrast, Aristotle says, you'd need to be utterly lacking in awareness to not understand that people complete themselves (διατελοῦσι) through their activities (1114a9).

Yet he observes that actions and traits are willing in different ways: an action is up to us and under our control from start (ἀρχή) to finish (τέλος), whereas a trait is willingly begun (presumably through said actions) even though it's not easy to trace exactly how we add to it over time. However, whether and how we use or apply a trait in our actions is always up to us, so a trait still ends up being something willing.

At this point, Aristotle has finished his consideration of the preliminaries and is ready to dig into the thrivings of character, starting with courage. We'll pick up there next time.

(Cross-posted at philosopher.coach.)


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