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How to Be Virtuous According to the Nicomachean Ethics by Aristotle

Updated on May 12, 2011

There are a few misconceptions when it comes to virtue.  Some may believe that virtues are traits that we are born with and that they come naturally to us, but Aristotle had a different idea about virtues.  In the second book of the Nicomachean Ethics, he translates his ideas about virtues and how virtues can easily transformed into vices.

            Right away Aristotle discusses virtue.  He states that there are two types of virtue, moral and intellectual.  The intellectual is obtained from learning and being taught and the moral, which is thought to be implanted in us through nature at birth, is actually achieved through habit, or ethos (1103a, 7).  To strengthen this idea, he says “for nothing which exists by nature can be changed by habit,” and virtue, which will be discussed later on throughout this essay, can be easily changed towards its two extremities and become vices. 

            But what does it mean to have virtues and be virtuous?  One must perform virtuous actions, such is demonstrated when Aristotle says “in our transactions with other men it is by action that some become just and others unjust” (1103b, 15.)  We then must consider what a virtuous action consists of.  To figure this out, we first have to define virtue.  Aristotle says that there are three parts of the soul which virtue could be described as.  They are emotions, capacities and characteristics.  Emotions are described as anger, hunger, fear and confidence, capacities are our abilities to feel those emotions, and characteristics are the condition in which we are in while feeling them.  Virtue is neither emotion nor capacity because for it to be an emotion we are required to be “moved” by it, which is not the case, and it cannot be a capacity because we cannot be called good or bad because of have the capability of being affected by something.  Thus virtue is a characteristic (1106a, 5-15).

            Specifically, virtue is a characteristic that renders good the thing itself of which it is the excellence and causes it to perform its function well.  In other words, in an example given by Aristotle, “the eye makes both the eye and its function good,” because a good eye equals good sight, and that is what they eye is meant to do (1106a, 15-20).  But it doesn’t take mere actions, such as what the eye does, to be virtuous, although everything that we do will be reflected in our characteristics, it is also important that we are intentionally doing a good deed.  Aristotle basically says that it’s possible for someone to accomplish something by accident or if someone asks them to do it, but they only way that they will learn from it or achieve virtue is if they do it purposefully and with full intent to be virtuous and to continue doing so (1105a, 30).

            There are two extremes for every virtue that, if achieved, become vices, and each of these states of the trait opposes the other two.  It is observed that “the nature of moral qualities is such that are destroyed by defect and by excess,” for example, not enough exercise will leave a body unfit to do any sort of hard labor or aerobic activities, but too much exercise can be harmful in overworking the muscles that they aren’t able to function correctly over a small period of time.  The perfect middle ground, or median, for this would be enough exercise that one pushes themselves slightly past their capabilities, but not so much that it is harmful for them.  However, Aristotle acknowledges that the median to any given situation is not the same for everyone, so there must be another term that is used to obtain virtue if it isn’t the median.  This is where the mean comes in, and Aristotle says that “virtue is a mean in the sense that it aims at the median” since it is impossible to draw a strict line between cowardice and recklessness. He also says that “virtue is a characteristic involving choice and it consists in observing the mean relative to us, which is defined by ration principle,” so we reach for a good middle ground by achieving the mean, and trying to remain there based on what is relative to us and our situations (1106b, 25).

            As stated before, every virtue has its vices and it is easy to lose sight of the mean and move towards either of its two extremes.  The extremes are both defined as an excess or a deficiency of the given characteristic, or in a more general and symbolic way of looking at it, “the mean is self-control and the excess is self-indulgence” (1107b, 5).  Courage, cowardice and recklessness are an example of a virtue and its two vices that are very common.  Each of these three characteristics all oppose one another or they are the opposite of them.  For example, as stated in the text, a brave man would be seen as reckless to a man who fears everything and would not dare do any single act of bravery.  Although, the same brave man would be seen as a coward to a man who fears nothing at all, and the brave man would view the other as reckless (1108b, 20).  It is also important to note that the man who fears everything is the complete opposite of the man who fears nothing, even more so an opposite than the courageous man who is the median to this example, because they are farther apart from each other on the scale (1108b 25-30).  Another example of a virtue is patience, and its vices are impatience and, for lack of a better term, being a pushover.  In this case, the extremes still oppose each other completely, and the mean can also slightly oppose each of its vices, but here I believe the mean is more opposed to the lack of patience than it is to having too much patience.  This is because “when one of the extremes is closer and more similar to the median, we do not treat it but rater the other extreme as the opposite of the median” (1109a, 5-10).

I generally believe that Aristotle was correct in his ideas regarding virtues and their vices, especially his idea that it is something to be learned and practiced, not a capacity or emotion that we are born with the ability to enact.  I also found it interesting that he separated the mean and the median, and made the median a sort of a goal to be reached, since I believe that being virtuous is to an extent, relative to each person.

Overall, Aristotle did a very thorough and convincing interpretation of his ideas of virtue; he covered everything from the definition of a virtue, to how one can become virtuous and what the dangers of having too much or too little of any single virtue are.  The Nicomachean Ethics do well to put a few of the misconceptions that were stated early on to rest.

Baird, Forrest E., and Walter Arnold. Kaufmann. "Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics (Book II)."Philosophic Classics: from Plato to Derrida. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson/Prentice Hall, 2008. 178-87. Print.


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    • rizzayvette profile image

      rizzayvette 5 years ago from Illinois

      Thanks so much Didge! It's based on a paper I wrote for my Intro To Philosophy class! Glad you enjoyed it.

    • Didge profile image

      Didge 5 years ago from Southern England

      Quality hub! I really appreciated reading it.