Walking with Aristotle: Nicomachean Ethics III.10-12

by Peter Saint-Andre


After his discussion of courage, Aristotle moves immediately to another of the traditional four virtues in ancient Greece: moderation. Although Aristotle never said that we should pursue moderation in everything, he did think that moderation is crucial to human fulfillment. Among other considerations, courage is paradigmatically displayed in war, but we engage in war only for the sake of peace; thus we need to understand and practice the character traits that maintain peace, among which moderation plays a central role.

The Greek word rendered here as 'moderation' is σωφροσύνη, which is notoriously difficult to translate (there's a whole book on the topic by Helen North, which of course I've read in my copious research into Aristotle's ethics). Following his usual procedure of attempting to identify the primary cases, Aristotle settles on situations in which human beings are drawn to bodily pleasures that we have in common with other animals, especially those that involve the senses of taste or touch. As he says, we don't call someone immoderate or decadent (ἀκόλαστος) if they have a passion for listening to music or viewing beautiful artworks, but we do if they are overly attached to eating, drinking, or sex. Similar reasoning applies to, say, a passion for honor or for learning; in such domains, the enjoyment is more mental than physical.

As with all character traits, the thriving or excellence lies somewhere between behaviors that fall short and those that go too far: here, moderation is intermediate between an admittedly rare insensitivity to bodily pleasures and an all-too-human tendency to indulgence. We are naturally geared to seek pleasure, which is why leading a more moderate, temperate life is a positive achievement. That life consists in feeling and acting in ways that are consistent with bodily health, good physical condition, reasonable expense, and - as always - that aim at what is beautifully right.

By contrast, the person who succumbs to decadence essentially has a policy of greedily grabbing every pleasure that comes his way (even if they are repulsively wrong) and is downright pained by a lack of constant titillation. In this fashion, the decadent person destroys the harmony that should naturally obtain between reason and desire - he literally loses his mind, since etymologically sōphrosunē means to preserve one's capacity to think and be mindful.

Both courage and moderation deal fundamentally with enjoyable and distressful emotions: fear and hope in the case of courage, bodily gratification in the case of moderation. From here, in Book IV Aristotle will progress to excellences of character that focus primarily on admirably appropriate actions, such as generosity and kindness. We'll look at those in our next installment of walking with Aristotle.

(Cross-posted at philosopher.coach.)


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