Aristotle's Doctrine of Virtue

Aristotle is a prominent representative of the last period of ancient classics. Although his philosophical work is closely connected with the previous periods of the development of ancient philosophical thought, the specific character of Aristotle’s doctrine is the philosophical detailing, the rejection of any abstract substantial approaches that was a peculiarity of Plato’s system and the limitation of the description of singular phenomena. Aristotle has systematized the ideas of Plato, transformed them in strict notions, found the earthly foundations of the ideal world of his mentor. That was the reason why Aristotle was named later “The Philosopher”, but not Plato. One of the most important components of Aristotle’s titanic work was the creation of ethics. Aristotle gave ethics its name. This term was included by him in scientific turn as a notion that means a certain branch of knowledge.

There are three ethical treatises among Aristotle’s writings.  Two of them are considered to be written by his disciples. Aristotle’s ethical ideas aren’t filled with the mystical religiousness of Plato: “He did not regard the body as the prison of the soul, nor did he believe that physical appetites are necessarily evil in themselves” (Lerner, Meacham, Mcnall Burns 125). Ethics of Aristotle has a very teleological character. By Aristotle, human being as well as everything possesses the inner determination to the good goal. This determination may be measured by some obstacles, which are essential for the nature of human being.  The good is the goal of everything and every activity. Aristotle is not interested in the action, which is right by itself, but in the action, which is aimed at attaining the highest good. According to Lear G.R., Aristotle is talking about “living truthfully” (99) and attaining theoretical and practical truthfulness. Everything that helps us to reach this good as the ultimate purpose of our life is genuine, otherwise it is not right. This ultimate goal, according to Aristotle, is happiness. But happiness may be understood different. So it must be acknowledged that happiness isn’t the pleasure or only various material things. Virtue can’t be considered to be the highest purpose either. Happiness which everyone is willing to reach must be an action that excludes unhappiness. This action or activity is the intellectual activity, which is based on the virtue.  In any case, happiness as a virtuous goal can’t mean only virtue itself: it is the activity according to virtue or the virtuous deeds, where virtue must be perceived to be as intellectual and moral virtues. That means that Aristotle sees the great difference between virtue and virtuous activity: “Aristotle has added that the virtuous activity must be rational activity of a kind appropriate to human beings” (Annas 367).

Intellectual and Moral Virtues. Practical wisdom

In  Aristotle’s conception, “virtues are not simply dispositions to do the morally right thing. They are settled dispositions of character, and have both an affective and an intellectual aspect (Annas 368). First ones are gained via upbringing, the second ones – via education.  

Aristotle defines three types of the soul: the vegetative soul, which has only vegetable functions, the sensitive soul, that possesses feelings and passions and is animals’ soul and the rational soul that is inherent in human beings.

Affective virtue corresponds to the part of the soul which obeys, but not rules (Mhire 42), so that to the sensitive soul. This part of the soul consists of affects and passions, because it is not rational. Ethical virtue can be realized only when these impulses are controlled by the higher part of the soul. Aristotle marks out 11 ethical virtues, which are: courage, moderation, generosity, splendor, magnanimity, ambition, firmness, truthfulness, courtesy, friendliness and justice. The last one is the most significant for the togetherness. Justice is not the notion of only ethics. It relates also to political science and law. Justice, pursued to Aristotle, is the principle that regulates the relationships between people as members of society.

Thinking of intellectual virtues, Aristotle considers them to be conformed to two rational abilities: 1) scientific nature, with the help of which we contemplate the universal objects, which aren’t depended on chance; 2) discretion or the ability to form the opinion, which is connected with the random objects. To the first group relate demonstrative constitution and intuitive mind. We use them to cognize the universal truth after making an inductive conclusion and then treating this truth or principle as self-evident. The combination of mind and scientific character is called wisdom that is directed at the highest objects and may include not only the objects of metaphysics, but also the objects of mathematics and natural science. Contemplation of these objects creates the meaning of the ideal human’s life.

Virtues of discretion are the art (the constitution of soul, which participates in creation) and the practical wisdom (the constitution of soul, which participates in judgments). Depending on the objects, practical wisdom is divided in: 1) discretion in the narrow sense that is associated with the good of a certain person; 2) economic, which is aimed at solving problems inside of families; 3) political science in the wide sense that is engaged in governance of the whole state.

Practical wisdom, according to Aristotle, is connected with the right syllogism, which says that: if A is the goal and B is the tool, then B must be done. If Aristotle had faced up to the objection, that this statement gives us only the hypothetical but not a categorical imperative, he would have answered that in such ethical questions the purpose is happiness. If happiness is the goal, to which everything strives for according the nature, then the imperative that determines the choice of ways to accomplish this goal (hypothetical imperative) differs from the imperatives (categorical), which define the tools of goals chosen independently. But Aristotle admits, that some people know how to act right due to their experience, but don’t have any notions about ethical principles.

Virtuous Character. Habits as the First Steps on the Way to Virtue

In the history of European civilization the notion of the character appeared first in the language of ancient Greeks. This term came from the verb  χαρασσω, which meant coining, sharpening. Aristotle in his doctrine appeals to this notion and narrows it. He considers it to be a  constellation of features, which are made in the process of living. It reflects the habitual way of human activities and represents the subject from the moral standpoint.

According to Aristotle, all people are born with the capability to be virtuous. No one is born with the possession of virtues. We have only the ability. Such conception gives the opportunity to Aristotle to pose the problem of moral upbringing. The ability has to be developed with the help of different exercises. This practice is virtuous deeds. From the first sight, it may be conceived to be a closed disk. Aristotle claims that we have to bring up the virtue in ourselves by accomplishing right moral actions, but it seems to be impossible to realize without having knowledge of those virtues. The Philosopher answers that we act firstly moral without any clue about that. Our choice relies on the habit. For instance, parents teach their children to tell the truth; nevertheless children don’t understand the inner sense of such a rule. The truthful behavior becomes a habit and then child starts to understand that virtue is the highest good.  Thus the virtue is the spiritual mood, which is founded on the human ability and with the help of training. Aristotle does not raise the questions of the influence of society on the process of the forming of virtuous assessments and understanding of the good.

Thus, the criterion of morality, its foundation is the random gift of nature, with which the individual comes to this world.  Here can be seen a contradiction: from one point of view, a person is free in his further development and choice of the way, the traits of his character are created during the education and upbringing, from another point of view – the opportunity to find a certain way in life and so to create the personality in a certain way depends on the nature.

The Golden Mean

In Ancient Greece the idea of measure or the golden mean was one of the most important in the system of life principles. Aristotle created a great theory based on this notion. The observance of certain proportions was considered to be the feature of all virtuous actions. That is why virtue is considered to be by Aristotle the middle between the extremes, which are vices. One of vices is caused by the excess, another – by the lack of feeling or activity: “Aristotle says, the virtues are no different from technical skills: every skilled worker knows how to avoid excess and deficiency, and is in a condition intermediate between two extremes. The courageous person, for example, judges that some dangers are worth facing and others not, and experiences fear to a degree that is appropriate to his circumstances. He lies between the coward, who flees every danger and experiences excessive fear, and the rash person, who judges every danger worth facing and experiences little or no fear. Aristotle holds that this same topography applies to every ethical virtue” (Kraut). Therefore the virtue is the constitution of human spirit, which gives the opportunity to choose the actions that refer to the moral principles. Genuine virtuous person knows these principles well and acts according to them. Aristotle was under the impression that virtuous person possesses the life wisdom, the capability to understand what to do in certain circumstances.

When Aristotle speaks about virtue as the middle he does not mean the middle that can be defined with the mathematical exactness. That is why he uses the notion of the disposition. That means that it depends on us, because human beings are the point of disposition. In Aristotle’s conception the virtue has a twofold state. In ontological dimension it is the middle, in axiological – the perfection or the extreme. The virtue isn’t the unity of vices from the value point of view, because it is the opposite of two vices.  But it is the middle from the ontological standpoint, because it contains two positive moments, which can be transformed into vice if they are lead to the edge.


The merit of Aristotle is the systematization of sciences and the foundation of  ethics. Ethical ideas reach the highest point in his doctrine. Pursuant to  Russel B., “ethical theories may be divided into two classes, according as they regard virtue as an end or a means. Aristotle, on the whole, takes the view that virtues are means to an end, namely happiness” (178). Thus his ethics is teleological, it contrasts with Plato’s conception. According to Aristotle, human virtue is a skill, ability to orientate oneself right, choose the proper deed, define the place of good and evil.

The ethics of Aristotle examines the question of upbringing of virtues and forming habits to live according to moral principles in order to attain happiness, which is accessible to human beings due to his inner nature. He distinguishes two types of virtue according to the two types of the soul. The concept of virtues is closely connected with the idea of the golden mean. In order to act in accordance with the idea of golden mean one should possess a practical wisdom.

Aristotle made a great contribution in the development of the philosophical thought not only in the Antiquity, but he influenced greatly on the medieval and further philosophical thought.  His ethics was one of the greatest achievements of ancient intellectual efforts.

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