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Victor Nuovo: Aristotle on 'becoming virtuous'

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Posted on April 27, 2017 |
By Victor Nuovo



Editor’s note: This is the fifth of a baker’s dozen of essays by Middlebury College Professor Emeritus Victor Nuovo on the origins of western political thought.

According to Aristotle, a virtue is a behavioral habit that is acquired by practice. Becoming virtuous is no different from becoming skilled in an art, craft or sport. It requires experience and instruction and the use of reason, good judgment and a wealth of experience.

Aristotle uses the term “habit” to describe a disposition to act in a certain way; he adds reason and judgment to emphasize that virtuous actions are always deliberate, suited to the occasion, and measured. A virtue is a habit that we, and others, can count on; it makes our mutual dealings civil.

Aristotle describes a virtue as a mean between two extremes — the one involving excess, the other deficiency. For example, courage is a mean between recklessness and cowardliness; temperance is the mean between debauchery and neurasthenia (emotional fatigue or weakness); good temper is a mean between irascibility and a sort of indifference; generosity is the mean between extravagance and miserliness; pride is the mean between vanity and humility.

There are more. But these will do for a beginning. Reason and judgment are applied when steering a course between these extremes, and the more experience we acquire in our efforts, and the more observant we are of the behavior of ourselves and others, the more skilled we become in virtue—and the better we become at avoiding extremes. Aristotle calls this capacity “right reason” or thinking correctly.

All of these are social virtues. They require being with others, a social context: courage in defense of one’s homeland; temperance in regulating our public and private passions; generosity in sharing our wealth; pride in seeking to accomplish great things that benefit others.

The simplicity of the method belies the difficulty of applying it.

Aristotle regards virtuous action as a continual experiment in living. Every judgment is different and applies to different circumstances, so that finding the mean is always a new discovery, a new instance of right reason, which for an experienced person brings satisfaction; it is the seasoning of an active life.

Consider the virtue of temperance. It involves regulating one’s temper, or keeping it. It is an important civic virtue. Aristotle calls it gentility.      

In public discourse about critical issues passion often prevails over reason. And yet all would agree that reason or rational judgment, a careful weighing of principles and consequences, ought to decide what is the right or the best thing to do, for passions are blind.

But in the public sphere, mere reason lacks persuasive force; passion persuades or compels, but does not instruct. A virtuous politician must seek a position in between cool rationality and passion, for the goal of political discourse is informed consent sustained by commitment—which is also a virtue that steers a course between blind adherence and mere indifference. It takes training and experience to achieve this goal. As Aristotle describes it, it involves a readiness to become angry “for such causes and for such a length of time as principle may require.” In such instances the anger is real and heartfelt, but the action that it impels is reasonable and fair.

Justice is another important civic virtue. Unlike Plato, and more like us, Aristotle regards justice as an abstract term with different uses or meanings. We use it to signify the practice of fairness or equity in all our dealings, or in acting lawfully. Injustice, on the other hand, signifies the practice of getting as much as one can for oneself, or a willful disregard for law, mere self-regard, or lawlessness.

Laws also can be just or unjust; laws that favor a privileged minority, or that give special advantage to the party that happens to be in power, are unjust. Just laws aim at the welfare and happiness of all. In this respect, principled disobedience to unjust laws is just. We know this as civil disobedience, which is an honorable tradition.

But we must never forget that civil disobedience is a practice that requires also an abiding respect for law. It is an endeavor to make laws just. In contrast, the current paranoia against law and the institutions of government that has raised its ugly head in our time and is motivated by resentment and vicious self interest, is a perfect instance of injustice—vile and reprehensible.

Now, even though virtue is a set of rational states or dispositions, Aristotle believed that it is motivated and sustained by passions—two, in particular, honor and shame. The honorable together with the good, are the ideals of Greek culture. For Aristotle, the good is the general name for whatever is beneficial or promotes enduring happiness in human life.

The honorable, or the noble, requires more effort to understand. The Greek word, kalon, is also and more often translated as “beauty.” Perhaps if we fix in our minds the figures of Greek sculpture, or Greek temples, figures finely wrought and full of grace, we can begin to understand how ideas of beauty and what is noble or honorable converge in a single sentiment.

Aristotle associates the noble with heroic action. Heroes are motivated by a sense of honor when they enter into battle. It is front and center in the motto of the United States Military Academy, memorialized by General MacArthur in his farewell address there: Duty, Honor, Country. It applies to all of the virtues. A virtuous life is a noble life.

In his use of this idea, Aristotle seems to rely on his mentor Plato, whose idea of a just ruler is of one whose life is wholly dedicated to the welfare of others, whose duty is to serve them without any regard to personal gain. Nobility indeed.

Shame is another social passion. I am reminded of the scene of Adam and Eve, having eaten of the forbidden fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, standing naked and ashamed. Their shame was a fear of discovery, but also of their nakedness (Genesis 3: 7–11). It is a curious comment on the discovery of sexuality, perhaps, and of a loss of innocence. How they are connected, the narrator does not say.

The Greek idea of shame is nobler than this. The sense of shame that is a motive of virtue is a fear of discovery, not just of being found out by others, but of discovering oneself. It is the realization by an individual that he or she does not measure up to a noble ideal. Shame is a sense of one’s moral nakedness. Such a sensibility may be absent from us moderns; if so, it is our loss. Perhaps it is not an irrecoverable loss. 

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