December 5, 2008
Upon examining virtue, it is common for one to question how it comes about. What is virtue the telos of? In Book 1 of Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle identifies virtue with the political life. During Aristotle’s time, the political life was meant for “sophisticated people, men of action” and was the most fulfilling (7). Virtue is not easy to come by, as will be further explained. Happiness is identified with virtue because it is an achievement that must be gained in the amount of a lifetime and it is an “activity of the soul” (20). Aristotle does not explicitly give one definition of virtue. However, he does have a clear explanation of what it is and how it is achieved.
Virtue has to do with actions and the situations being affected by such actions. The soul is made up of three things: feelings, capacities, and states. Aristotle says that virtue has to be described as one of the three, and he distinguishes it by explaining why the other two cannot be virtue. The first element he discusses is feelings. It is commonly inferred that humans become irrational when feelings are involved. Aristotle agrees by saying that feelings do not come from rationality and “we are moved out feeling” (29). This is an unreliable way of measuring a person’s soul because of the inconsistency. It would not be correct to call someone virtuous for only a moment because it would weaken the meaning. Another thing found in the soul is capacities. Humans are born with capacities that either leads to becoming good or bad at something. Capacities refer to the potential of being able to do something without apriori knowledge or education; not the actual act of the skill. Humans are not judged based on capacities. This is so because capacity comes in nature, it is something given. Virtue does not come from nature and is not easily gained. Eliminating feelings and capacities as virtues leaves “states” as the only component of the soul. Virtue as a state can be further explained as a state of being. The virtue of something is the aspect of what makes it a good thing. For example, the virtue of a tennis player is the ability to hit the tennis ball consistently, or have a strong mental game. Saying that virtue is the good of something may be the closest, and simplest, definition of virtue Aristotle gives. He gives the example of eyes by saying that “the virtue of the eye, for example, makes it and its characteristics good, because it is through the virtue of the eye that we see well” (29). The function of an object is its virtue. For humans, their virtue is to be a good human. Part of becoming a good human is being just and that is why Aristotle connects political science with virtue. A good politician should be virtuous in order to justly rule the city (7).
There is one idea that must be understood when studying Aristotelian thought. Objects are given a rise or deflated by the same action. One way to look at it is like a scale. Virtues are “produced and developed from the same origins and by the same means as those from which and by which they are corrupted “(25). For instance, water is good for health. However, too much water for a person leads to intoxication or drowning, too small amount of water leads to dehydration. Continuing with this scale of activity, virtue is also concerned with pain and pleasure. Aristotle says that our actions are regulated by pleasure and pain (27). The same way virtue is affected by the actions, pleasure and pain have the same result. Feelings are influenced by whether there is a sensation of pleasure or pain. These feelings lead to actions. The virtuous person knows how to emotionally react to situations. Virtue comes from having the knowledge of which emotions are connected to certain happenings. Actions are sometimes done out of feelings and this is how the pleasure and pain act as regulators.
Virtue is about hitting the mark, or the mean,