Ancient Philosophy


What was Aristotle’s theory of the virtues?

Aristotle believed that virtue, or moral goodness, is a form of practical wisdom. It is neither determined by nature, nor is it precluded by nature; it is the result of thought, action, and habit. However, not everyone can be virtuous, according to Aristotle. His necessary conditions for virtue included: high social status, wealth, good looks, being male, and being a free citizen. The specific virtues Aristotle talked about were limited to the traits admired in the ruling classes of the ancient world: pride, generosity, courage, nobility, temperance. This was partly the result of snobbery, and partly due to his sense that the practice of virtue required freedom from labor and drudgery. Still, Aristotle’s ideas about how virtue is acquired and practiced can be made relevant to all adults in our own more democratic times. Moreover, we can add the virtues we care about (for example, compassion) to his limited list.

Aristotle thought that we become virtuous, first through proper training as children and second by doing the acts that correspond to the virtues in question. For example, to become courageous, it is necessary to perform courageous acts over a period of time. Virtue for human beings (as for all other things) is the excellence of what makes them human, and what makes us human is our reason, our ability to think actively. Therefore, it is important that we deliberate before acting in ways that will develop our virtues. For example, the courageous acts performed by a courageous person must be done for the right reasons.

The virtuous actions of good people will be performed because they already have the virtues in question. But every situation is unique, which is why virtuous action calls for rational deliberation beforehand. Aristotle advised that a good rule of practical reason is to aim for the middle or mean. Courage, for example, is usually somewhere between cowardice and fool-heartedness. In aiming for the mean in this way, we should over-correct for our known faults. Thus, because we tend to be fond of pleasure, we should subject choices that are pleasant to a special scrutiny.


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