Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics

Books 2: Character Virtues

Public Domain English Translation by W. D. Ross

Especially important points are highlighted in green.

My comments upon the text are in blue.

Quotations from other scholars are in brownish/red
Public Domain English Translation by W. D. Ross

 Book 2


 VIRTUE, then, being of two kinds, intellectual and moral, intellectual virtue in the main owes both its birth and its growth to teaching (for which reason it requires experience and time), while moral virtue comes about as a result of habit,

Aristotle doesn’t mean exactly what we mean by “habit” here. For us, a habit is something we do automatically, without thinking about it. But Aristotle here is referring to deliberative activity where we choose to act in the right way over and over again, thus reinforcing in us the disposition to do so in the future and making it easier and easier to do the right thing. The more we do so, the more strong and stable the virtue (such as courage) becomes and the less we have to struggle to be courageous. The truly virtuous person has no internal conflicts but finds it easy and pleasant to do what is right.

whence also its name (ethike) is one that is formed by a slight variation from the word ethos (habit). From this it is also plain that none of the moral virtues arises in us by nature;

We are not then naturally courageous or aggressive or selfish or anything. . . all of our moral character is first learned and then built into us by repeated right action. While Aristotle does believe that there is a common human nature in that we have common needs and capacities, he does not believe that there is a common moral nature, unlike many who moral theorists who will follow him. He would not accept, for example, any idea of original sin or any other idea that suggest we are naturally bad (or good) people. Thus the immense importance of living in a good community where one will be correctly taught and where one’s attempts to be good will be supported by the community.

for nothing that exists by nature can form a habit contrary to its nature. For instance the stone which by nature moves downwards cannot be habituated to move upwards, not even if one tries to train it by throwing it up ten thousand times; nor can fire be habituated to move downwards, nor can anything else that by nature behaves in one way be trained to behave in another. Neither by nature, then, nor contrary to nature do the virtues arise in us; rather we are adapted by nature to receive them, and are made perfect by habit.

Again, of all the things that come to us by nature we first acquire the potentiality and later exhibit the activity (this is plain in the case of the senses; for it was not by often seeing or often hearing that we got these senses, but on the contrary we had them before we used them, and did not come to have them by using them); but the virtues we get by first exercising them, as also happens in the case of the arts as well. For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them, e.g. men become builders by building and lyreplayers by playing the lyre; so too we become just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate acts, brave by doing brave acts.

Thinking of the acquisition of virtue as like the acquisition of any skill will give you Aristotle’s idea. How does one learn to play the guitar? Ideally one starts with a good teacher and then one practices. The more one practices, the better one gets and the more pleasant it becomes. At least that’s true if one practices carefully and thoughtfully, trying to do one’s best. Just practicing any old way, not caring about one’s mistakes will not lead to improvement. The same for virtue. It’s not much fun to play the guitar or to do any skill badly. One has to force oneself to practice. But the better one gets the more fun it is and after a while one plays out of sheer pleasure. One also can do more than when one started. This is true of virtues too. A beginner may be capable of only limited virtuous activity, but a veteran will be capable of more, better, and more sophisticated virtue.

 This is confirmed by what happens in states; for legislators make the citizens good by forming habits in them, and this is the wish of every legislator, and those who do not effect it miss their mark, and it is in this that a good constitution differs from a bad one.

 Again, it is from the same causes and by the same means that every virtue is both produced and destroyed, and similarly every art; for it is from playing the lyre that both good and bad lyre-players are produced. And the corresponding statement is true of builders and of all the rest; men will be good or bad builders as a result of building well or badly. For if this were not so, there would have been no need of a teacher, but all men would have been born good or bad at their craft. This, then, is the case with the virtues also; by doing the acts that we do in our transactions with other men we become just or unjust, and by doing the acts that we do in the presence of danger, and being habituated to feel fear or confidence, we become brave or cowardly. The same is true of appetites and feelings of anger; some men become temperate and good-tempered, others self-indulgent and irascible, by behaving in one way or the other in the appropriate circumstances. Thus, in one word, states of character arise out of like activities. This is why the activities we exhibit must be of a certain kind; it is because the states of character correspond to the differences between these. It makes no small difference, then, whether we form habits of one kind or of another from our very youth; it makes a very great difference, or rather all the difference.

An elder Cherokee Native American was teaching his grandchildren about life


He said to them, "A fight is going on inside me ...

it is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves.

One wolf represents fear, anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed,

arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride,

superiority, and ego.


The other stands for joy, peace, love, hope, sharing, serenity,

humility, kindness, benevolence, friendship, empathy, generosity,

truth, compassion, and faith.


The same fight is going on inside you, and inside every other person too"


They thought about it for a minute and then one child asked his

grandfather, "Which wolf will win?"


The old Cherokee simply replied... "The one you feed"


Cultures seem to differ greatly in what they believe is the right thing to do, but old Cherokee or ancient Greek, there is a great deal of cross-cultural agreement about what character traits it is good to have. The good ones are joy, peace, love, hope. . . and the bad ones are arrogance, greed, resentment. . . There is not universal agreement though: attitudes toward vengeance vary, for example.


Virtues are a state of one's character; whatever it is in one that tends to lead or allow one to do what is right. Vices are those states of character that lead or allow one to do what is wrong.

1. Lead to=some virtues cause one to do what is right or at least contribute to its doing. Compassion will motivate one to help someone in need. Some vices will  motivate one to do wrong actions such as hatred

2. Allow=some virtues allow one to do what is right: courage e.g. does not cause one to do the right thing but it allows one to overcome fear to do it. Laziness as a vice does not motivate one to do wrong things, but it allows one to not to good ones.


Features of virtues according to Aristotle:

1. Virtues are dispositional: courage is a stable disposition to do brave acts.

2. Virtues are not feelings:


 Next we must consider what virtue is. Since things that are found in the soul are of three kinds- passions, faculties, states of character, virtue must be one of these. By passions I mean appetite, anger, fear, confidence, envy, joy, friendly feeling, hatred, longing, emulation, pity, and in general the feelings that are accompanied by pleasure or pain; by faculties the things in virtue of which we are said to be capable of feeling these, e.g. of becoming angry or being pained or feeling pity; by states of character the things in virtue of which we stand well or badly with reference to the passions, e.g. with reference to anger we stand badly if we feel it violently or too weakly, and well if we feel it moderately; and similarly with reference to the other passions.

 Now neither the virtues nor the vices are passions, because we are not called good or bad on the ground of our passions, but are so called on the ground of our virtues and our vices, and because we are neither praised nor blamed for our passions (for the man who feels fear or anger is not praised, nor is the man who simply feels anger blamed, but the man who feels it in a certain way), but for our virtues and our vices we are praised or blamed.

 Again, we feel anger and fear without choice, but the virtues are modes of choice or involve choice. Further, in respect of the passions we are said to be moved, but in respect of the virtues and the vices we are said not to be moved but to be disposed in a particular way.

 For these reasons also they are not faculties; for we are neither called good nor bad, nor praised nor blamed, for the simple capacity of feeling the passions; again, we have the faculties by nature, but we are not made good or bad by nature; we have spoken of this before. If, then, the virtues are neither passions nor faculties, all that remains is that they should be states of character.

Aristotle describes ethical virtue as a “hexis(“state” “condition” “disposition”)—a tendency or disposition, induced by our habits, to have appropriate feelings (1105b25-6). Defective states of character are hexeis (plural of hexis) as well, but they are tendencies to have inappropriate feelings. The significance of Aristotle's characterization of these states as hexeis is his decisive rejection of the thesis, found throughout Plato's early dialogues, that virtue is nothing but a kind of knowledge and vice nothing but a lack of knowledge. Although Aristotle frequently draws analogies between the crafts and the virtues, he insists that the virtues differ from the crafts and all branches of knowledge in that the former involve appropriate emotional responses and are not purely intellectual conditions.


What is the relationship between feelings and moral choice?

a. Moral choices correct feelings; they often require us to do what we don't feel like doing. I may feel like running away; morality tells us to stay and face the danger or the commitment. For a moral thinker like Immanuel Kant of the 18th century,  a virtue is really nothing more than the strength of will to overcome feelings. This is a permanent feature of the relationship between feelings and morality

b. Aristotle's view: Feelings ideally support moral choices: For the Greeks, if one had to use strength of character to overcome one’s feelings, this  was a sign that one had not morally developed sufficiently and was something to be overcome. Aristotle distinguishes

i. Enkratic people: self-controlled. They can overcome their feelings and do what is right.

ii. Virtuous people: Their feelings support doing the right thing and so do not experience internal tension or conflict in being good.

c. On the Kantian view as long as one knows one's duty one can overcome feelings to do what is right. But on Aristotle's view, the intellect is not this strong. Feelings must be harnessed in the service of morality or one will not be a good person. Internal conflict will make one less of a good person because one's reason isn't capable of consistently causing one to do what is right. To be a virtuous person one has to change one's feelings to support doing what is right. We may admire someone who can overcome his feelings of fear to do the right thing but the Greeks do not: they see him or her as someone who is lacking in moral development: an admirable person would have eliminated those feelings.


Aristotle says:

              If arguments were sufficient for making people decent, they would justly have won many great rewards. . . Argument and teaching certainly do not have force in all; rather the soul of the hearer must first, like earth that is to nourish the seed, have been cultivated by habits towards taking please in and hating things in a way that is fine. The person who lives by his feelings cannot listen to an argument that directs him away, nor even understand it; how can one persuade someone like this? And in general feelings seem to yield not to argument but to force. So there must be a character there already, somehow akin to virtue, loving the fine and repelled by the base. - Nichomachean Ethics 1179b 23-31


"All the ancient schools accept . . . that having a virtue is not having the strength of will to correct one's feelings when the latter might lead away from the right action. Rather having a virtue is having one's character developed in such a way that one not only grasps what the right thing to do is, but takes pleasure in doing it; one is repelled by the thought of wrong acting and one is not seriously tempted by incentives not to do the right action. " -Annas p. 55


A generous person does not give grudgingly; an honest person is not tempted to steal; a faithful man does not overcome his temptation to sleep with a seductive woman—he simply isn't interested. (Aristotle does not agree with the Bible that to "lust in one's heart" is the equivalent of adultery because he thinks that acting on the lust has moral importance, but he does agree that a good person would not feel the lust in the first place. Reliability and stability are important for Aristotle: who would you trust more: a partner who was constantly aware of the sexual attractiveness of others but overcame it, or one who simply was not sexually attracted to anyone else?) Is this beyond our capacities as human beings? Many have thought so and criticized Greek moral ideas because of what they see as demanding from us what can't be done.  But here is one answer to that:

              "When I ask whether I could be faithful, I am not asking whether I could become faithful now. Perhaps I could not bring myself to be faithful given the way my feelings and reactions have developed, or perhaps I could act faithfully but it would pain me to do so. So I cannot now be virtuous in the sense of being truly faithful, body and spirit.. But it is well up to me whether I become virtuous or not; for once I am convinced that it is important to become virtuous, I can take steps to enable myself to act virtuously-by thinking harder before the appropriate occasion and consciously resolving to do so. And by making this into a consistent pattern in my life I can bring it about that acting faithfully is less and less of an effort on each occasion, and the more I get used to it, the more comfortable I will feel with it, and the more pleasant it will be for me."  -Annas p. 56 (modified slightly for the sake of the example)

3. Virtues are voluntary: they involve choice

"we are subject to moral assessment-praised or blamed-for having or lacking virtues, but not for having feelings. . . feelings are not a matter of deliberate choice. . .we are not responsible for the way we feel, since it is not entirely under our control; but we are responsible for being virtuous or depraved (vicious) (so when Aristotle discusses the virtue of anger, he is not referring to the feeling of anger, but to a disposition to act in angry ways). . . so virtue must involve not just our feelings but the way w ehandle them and choose to deal with them  . . . A virtue or vice is the way I have made myself and chosen to be.  Julia Annas, The Morality of Happiness p. 49

A virtue is voluntary in that it

* Is built up from repeated choices


(A habit is what develops from unthinking repeated choices: a virtue or vice arises from deliberative choices.)

* It comes into action when making a choice


"My past choices have built up a disposition to be honest, but my present decision is not just a reflex determined by that disposition-it is my endorsement of that disposition. The disposition is not a causal force making me choose; it is the way I have made myself, the way I have chosen to be, and in deciding in accordance with it, I endorse the way I have become"  --Annas p. 51


Aristotle says:

              The virtues, just like the other skills, we acquire by first activating them. Where we have to learn something to do it, it is by doing it that we learn it; for example. . .it is by playing an instrument that people become musicians. In this way it is by doing just actions that we become just, by doing temperate actions that we become temperate and by doing brave actions that we become brave.  . . Nichomachean Ethics 1103 a 31-b2


4. A virtue is rational or reasonable.

a. We need to reflect before beginning to change our behavior. We need to figure out in what ways we need to change.

b. I must continually monitor how I am doing

5. Virtues exist in a time context: acting virtuously now is related to my past choices to do so and it will have an effect on my future virtue: acting in accordance with the virtue will strengthen it and make it more stable; acting against it will weaken it.

6. Virtues are best developed when young. It is much easier to develop the virtues in the first place than to have to undue vices and replace them with virtues. Just as with any skill: it's easier to learn how to do it right in the first place than to have to unlearn bad habits later. This is why good soccer coaches teach kids proper techniques for kicking and passing right from the beginning.

    * *


 Since, then, the present inquiry does not aim at theoretical knowledge like the others (for we are inquiring not in order to know what virtue is, but in order to become good, since otherwise our inquiry would have been of no use),

This is important if one is to understand what the Nichomachean Ethics is: it is not meant to instruct us in what the right thing to do is. It is meant to instruct us in how to become virtuous. Aristotle assumed that his audience knew what it was right to do.

we must examine the nature of actions, namely how we ought to do them; for these determine also the nature of the states of character that are produced, as we have said. Now, that we must act according to the right rule is a common principle and must be assumed-it will be discussed later, i.e. both what the right rule is, and how it is related to the other virtues. But this must be agreed upon beforehand, that the whole account of matters of conduct must be given in outline and not precisely, as we said at the very beginning that the accounts we demand must be in accordance with the subject-matter; matters concerned with conduct and questions of what is good for us have no fixity, any more than matters of health.The general account being of this nature, the account of particular cases is yet more lacking in exactness; for they do not fall under any art or precept but the agents themselves must in each case consider what is appropriate to the occasion, as happens also in the art of medicine or of navigation.

We can give a general account of what is healthy for us, but what is healthy for us in specific cases “has no fixity,” –it varies depending on the state of one’s body at the time. To know what is healthy for one in a specific case requires knowledge about oneself and judgment. Perhaps right now, recovering from a hamstring injury, one shouldn’t go on a long run. But next month, that might be the healthy thing to do. One can have virtues that lend themselves to being healthy, such as not being greedy, being wise about what one eats, and so on, but what the healthy thing to do in any particular case is a matter of judgment, not something that can be laid down ahead of time in rules. That is why for Aristotle one of the most important capacities one can have is moral judgment. One cannot just refer to a set of rules to know what to do.

  But though our present account is of this nature we must give what help we can. First, then, let us consider this, that it is the nature of such things to be destroyed by defect and excess, as we see in the case of strength and of health (for to gain light on things imperceptible we must use the evidence of sensible things); both excessive and defective exercise destroys the strength, and similarly drink or food which is above or below a certain amount destroys the health, while that which is proportionate both produces and increases and preserves it. So too is it, then, in the case of temperance and courage and the other virtues. For the man who flies from and fears everything and does not stand his ground against anything becomes a coward, and the man who fears nothing at all but goes to meet every danger becomes rash; and similarly the man who indulges in every pleasure and abstains from none becomes self-indulgent, while the man who shuns every pleasure, as boors do, becomes in a way insensible; temperance and courage, then, are destroyed by excess and defect, and preserved by the mean.

While we can’t give rules that will decide for you what to do, one can give some general guidelines that may help you decide. One of those is that virtuous people avoid excess and defect and find a “mean.”

 But not only are the sources and causes of their origination and growth the same as those of their destruction, but also the sphere of their actualization will be the same; for this is also true of the things which are more evident to sense, e.g. of strength; it is produced by taking much food and undergoing much exertion, and it is the strong man that will be most able to do these things. So too is it with the virtues; by abstaining from pleasures we become temperate, and it is when we have become so that we are most able to abstain from them; and similarly too in the case of courage; for by being habituated to despise things that are terrible and to stand our ground against them we become brave, and it is when we have become so that we shall be most able to stand our ground against them

We all start out life governed by desires and impulses. Unlike the habits, which are passive but lasting conditions, desires and impulses are passive and momentary, but they are very strong. Listen to a child who can't live without some object of appetite or greed, or who makes you think you are a murderer if you try to leave her alone in a dark room. How can such powerful influences be overcome? To expect a child to let go of the desire or fear that grips her may seem as hopeless as Aristotle's example of training a stone to fall upward, were it not for the fact that we all know that we have somehow, for the most part, broken the power of these tyrannical feelings. We don't expel them altogether, but we do get the upper hand; an adult who has temper tantrums like those of a two-year old has to live in an institution, and not in the adult world. But the impulses and desires don't weaken; it is rather the case that we get stronger.

Aristotle doesn't go into much detail about how this happens, except to say that we get the virtues by working at them: in the give-and-take with other people, some become just, others unjust; by acting in the face of frightening things and being habituated to be fearful or confident, some become brave and others cowardly; and some become moderate and gentle, others spoiled and bad-tempered, by turning around from one thing and toward another in the midst of desires and passions. (1103 b, 1422) He sums this up by saying that when we are at-work in a certain way, an active state results.


 We must take as a sign of states of character the pleasure or pain that ensues on acts; for the man who abstains from bodily pleasures and delights in this very fact is temperate, while the man who is annoyed at it is self-indulgent, and he who stands his ground against things that are terrible and delights in this or at least is not pained is brave, while the man who is pained is a coward. For moral excellence is concerned with pleasures and pains; it is on account of the pleasure that we do bad things, and on account of the pain that we abstain from noble ones. Hence we ought to have been brought up in a particular way from our very youth, as Plato says, so as both to delight in and to be pained by the things that we ought; for this is the right education.

The virtuous person will take pleasure in doing what is right and will be repulsed by doing what is wrong. Imagine to yourself some horrible bloody violence done on a child: you should feel some shudder of repulsion at the idea. Generalize this to all wrong acts and you can see Aristotle’s point. It isn’t enough to intellectually disapprove of doing the wrong thing: we must feel its wrongness in our guts, it must disgust and horrify us.

 Again, if the virtues are concerned with actions and passions, and every passion and every action is accompanied by pleasure and pain, for this reason also virtue will be concerned with pleasures and pains. This is indicated also by the fact that punishment is inflicted by these means; for it is a kind of cure, and it is the nature of cures to be effected by contraries.

 Again, as we said but lately, every state of soul has a nature relative to and concerned with the kind of things by which it tends to be made worse or better; but it is by reason of pleasures and pains that men become bad, by pursuing and avoiding these- either the pleasures and pains they ought not or when they ought not or as they ought not, or by going wrong in one of the other similar ways that may be distinguished. Hence men even define the virtues as certain states of impassivity and rest; not well, however, because they speak absolutely, and do not say 'as one ought' and 'as one ought not' and 'when one ought or ought not', and the other things that may be added. We assume, then, that this kind of excellence tends to do what is best with regard to pleasures and pains, and vice does the contrary.

 The following facts also may show us that virtue and vice are concerned with these same things. There being three objects of choice and three of avoidance, the noble, the advantageous, the pleasant, and their contraries, the base, the injurious, the painful, about all of these the good man tends to go right and the bad man to go wrong, and especially about pleasure; for this is common to the animals, and also it accompanies all objects of choice; for even the noble and the advantageous appear pleasant.

 Again, it has grown up with us all from our infancy; this is why it is difficult to rub off this passion, engrained as it is in our life. And we measure even our actions, some of us more and others less, by the rule of pleasure and pain. For this reason, then, our whole inquiry must be about these; for to feel delight and pain rightly or wrongly has no small effect on our actions.

 Again, it is harder to fight with pleasure than with anger, to use Heraclitus' phrase', but both art and virtue are always concerned with what is harder; for even the good is better when it is harder. Therefore for this reason also the whole concern both of virtue and of political science is with pleasures and pains; for the man who uses these well will be good, he who uses them badly bad.

 That virtue, then, is concerned with pleasures and pains, and that by the acts from which it arises it is both increased and, if they are done differently, destroyed, and that the acts from which it arose are those in which it actualizes itself- let this be taken as said.

 Thus we have stated what virtue is in respect of its genus.


 We must, however, not only describe virtue as a state of character, but also say what sort of state it is. We may remark, then, that every virtue or excellence both brings into good condition the thing of which it is the excellence and makes the work of that thing be done well; e.g. the excellence of the eye makes both the eye and its work good; for it is by the excellence of the eye that we see well. Similarly the excellence of the horse makes a horse both good in itself and good at running and at carrying its rider and at awaiting the attack of the enemy. Therefore, if this is true in every case, the virtue of man also will be the state of character which makes a man good and which makes him do his own work well.

 How this is to happen we have stated already, but it will be made plain also by the following consideration of the specific nature of virtue. In everything that is continuous and divisible it is possible to take more, less, or an equal amount, and that either in terms of the thing itself or relatively to us; and the equal is an intermediate between excess and defect. By the intermediate in the object I mean that which is equidistant from each of the extremes, which is one and the same for all men; by the intermediate relatively to us that which is neither too much nor too little- and this is not one, nor the same for all. For instance, if ten is many and two is few, six is the intermediate, taken in terms of the object; for it exceeds and is exceeded by an equal amount; this is intermediate according to arithmetical proportion. But the intermediate relatively to us is not to be taken so; if ten pounds are too much for a particular person to eat and two too little, it does not follow that the trainer will order six pounds; for this also is perhaps too much for the person who is to take it, or too little- too little for Milo, too much for the beginner in athletic exercises. The same is true of running and wrestling. Thus a master of any art avoids excess and defect, but seeks the intermediate and chooses this- the intermediate not in the object but relatively to us.

 If it is thus, then, that every art does its work well- by looking to the intermediate and judging its works by this standard (so that we often say of good works of art that it is not possible either to take away or to add anything, implying that excess and defect destroy the goodness of works of art, while the mean preserves it; and good artists, as we say, look to this in their work), and if, further, virtue is more exact and better than any art, as nature also is, then virtue must have the quality of aiming at the intermediate. I mean moral virtue; for it is this that is concerned with passions and actions, and in these there is excess, defect, and the intermediate. For instance, both fear and confidence and appetite and anger and pity and in general pleasure and pain may be felt both too much and too little, and in both cases not well; but to feel them at the right times, with reference to the right objects, towards the right people, with the right motive, and in the right way, is what is both intermediate and best, and this is characteristic of virtue. Similarly with regard to actions also there is excess, defect, and the intermediate. Now virtue is concerned with passions and actions, in which excess is a form of failure, and so is defect, while the intermediate is praised and is a form of success; and being praised and being successful are both characteristics of virtue. Therefore virtue is a kind of mean, since, as we have seen, it aims at what is intermediate.

 Again, it is possible to fail in many ways (for evil belongs to the class of the unlimited, as the Pythagoreans conjectured, and good to that of the limited), while to succeed is possible only in one way (for which reason also one is easy and the other difficult- to miss the mark easy, to hit it difficult); for these reasons also, then, excess and defect are characteristic of vice, and the mean of virtue;

 For men are good in but one way, but bad in many.

 Virtue, then, is a state of character concerned with choice, lying in a mean, i.e. the mean relative to us, this being determined by a rational principle, and by that principle by which the man of practical wisdom would determine it. Now it is a mean between two vices, that which depends on excess and that which depends on defect; and again it is a mean because the vices respectively fall short of or exceed what is right in both passions and actions, while virtue both finds and chooses that which is intermediate. Hence in respect of its substance and the definition which states its essence virtue is a mean, with regard to what is best and right an extreme.

 But not every action nor every passion admits of a mean; for some have names that already imply badness, e.g. spite, shamelessness, envy, and in the case of actions adultery, theft, murder; for all of these and suchlike things imply by their names that they are themselves bad, and not the excesses or deficiencies of them. It is not possible, then, ever to be right with regard to them; one must always be wrong. Nor does goodness or badness with regard to such things depend on committing adultery with the right woman, at the right time, and in the right way, but simply to do any of them is to go wrong. It would be equally absurd, then, to expect that in unjust, cowardly, and voluptuous action there should be a mean, an excess, and a deficiency; for at that rate there would be a mean of excess and of deficiency, an excess of excess, and a deficiency of deficiency. But as there is no excess and deficiency of temperance and courage because what is intermediate is in a sense an extreme, so too of the actions we have mentioned there is no mean nor any excess and deficiency, but however they are done they are wrong; for in general there is neither a mean of excess and deficiency, nor excess and deficiency of a mean.

 We must, however, not only make this general statement, but also apply it to the individual facts. For among statements about conduct those which are general apply more widely, but those which are particular are more genuine, since conduct has to do with individual cases, and our statements must harmonize with the facts in these cases. We may take these cases from our table. With regard to feelings of fear and confidence courage is the mean; of the people who exceed, he who exceeds in fearlessness has no name (many of the states have no name), while the man who exceeds in confidence is rash, and he who exceeds in fear and falls short in confidence is a coward. With regard to pleasures and pains- not all of them, and not so much with regard to the pains- the mean is temperance, the excess self-indulgence. Persons deficient with regard to the pleasures are not often found; hence such persons also have received no name. But let us call them 'insensible'.

 With regard to giving and taking of money the mean is liberality, the excess and the defect prodigality and meanness. In these actions people exceed and fall short in contrary ways; the prodigal exceeds in spending and falls short in taking, while the mean man exceeds in taking and falls short in spending. (At present we are giving a mere outline or summary, and are satisfied with this; later these states will be more exactly determined.) With regard to money there are also other dispositions- a mean, magnificence (for the magnificent man differs from the liberal man; the former deals with large sums, the latter with small ones), an excess, tastelessness and vulgarity, and a deficiency, niggardliness; these differ from the states opposed to liberality, and the mode of their difference will be stated later.

Greed is an important vice….objects and activities give us pleasure… greed occurs when we allow that pleasure to overcome our assessment of the proper place of that thing or activity in our lives. The Greeks don’t believe that the objects of greed are intrinsically bad. . . it’s our wanting them too much thatis vicious. Lust is greed for sexual pleasure: sexual pleasure is not bad, and no kind of sexual activity is intrinsically bad…but to pursue sex to the point where it interferes with things that one also thinks are important is to make sex a vice. Gluttony is greed for pleasure of the palate. . . there is nothing intrinsically wrong with eating but if we enjoy eating so much that it interferes with our health, that is a vice. It’s about proportion and proper place. A virtuous person has made an assessment of what his or her life should be like, of what his/her goals are and of how to achieve them. Greed is to allow our desire for pleasure to throw things out of proportion so that instead of pursuing happiness, we are pursuing pleasure. Suppose you like to play video games. Nothing wrong with that. But if one sits there all day playing them, ignoring friends, homework, physical activities. . .then one is greedy and this is a vice. To spend  a  life single-mindedly pursuing wealth is just like spending a life playing videogames for the Greeks. It may be pleasant but it’s out of proportion and it will lead one to neglect things that are necessary for one’s happiness.


How does a prima facie virtue become a situational vice?


I.  by erring in the direction of  EXCESS or DEFICIENCY or exercising the virtue toward the wrong person or at the wrong time or place.

Aristotle: through misrecognition or misjudgment and misapplication. One misjudges the nature of the situation one is in or the appropriate amount or virtue in a situation and is either too little virtuous or too much so.

Example: the doctor who stole medical supplies and drugs from an abandoned pharmacy after Hurricane Katrina in order to tend to sick and injured people. IMHO, he correctly judged that his normal level of honesty (presuming that he would not ordinarily steal from pharmacies) would be inappropriate in this situation and that being less honest than usual would be the right thing to do. Had he held to his normal standard of honesty and refused to take the medical supplies, one could accuse him of the situational vice of being excessively honest.

(Had he also helped himself to liquor and money from the till, he would have exhibited the situational vice of being not honest enough.) 


II. By using them for the WRONG ENDS.

There are some virtues that we can call “Instrumental” virtues the virtue of which depends almost entirely on what they are used to achieve. The intellectual virtues are like this as are dedication, determination, loyalty, competence, intelligence, discipline. . . all seem to be virtues when used for good ends, but vices when used for bad ends. The courage shown by the 9/11 terrorists was a vice because they used it for murderous ends. Intelligence used for criminal ends is a vice, not a virtue. 

With regard to honour and dishonour the mean is proper pride, the excess is known as a sort of 'empty vanity', and the deficiency is undue humility; and as we said liberality was related to magnificence, differing from it by dealing with small sums, so there is a state similarly related to proper pride, being concerned with small honours while that is concerned with great. For it is possible to desire honour as one ought, and more than one ought, and less, and the man who exceeds in his desires is called ambitious, the man who falls short unambitious, while the intermediate person has no name. The dispositions also are nameless, except that that of the ambitious man is called ambition. Hence the people who are at the extremes lay claim to the middle place; and we ourselves sometimes call the intermediate person ambitious and sometimes unambitious, and sometimes praise the ambitious man and sometimes the unambitious. The reason of our doing this will be stated in what follows; but now let us speak of the remaining states according to the method which has been indicated.

 With regard to anger also there is an excess, a deficiency, and a mean. Although they can scarcely be said to have names, yet since we call the intermediate person good-tempered let us call the mean good temper; of the persons at the extremes let the one who exceeds be called irascible, and his vice irascibility, and the man who falls short an inirascible sort of person, and the deficiency inirascibility.


 There are also three other means, which have a certain likeness to one another, but differ from one another: for they are all concerned with intercourse in words and actions, but differ in that one is concerned with truth in this sphere, the other two with pleasantness; and of this one kind is exhibited in giving amusement, the other in all the circumstances of life. We must therefore speak of these too, that we may the better see that in all things the mean is praise-worthy, and the extremes neither praiseworthy nor right, but worthy of blame. Now most of these states also have no names, but we must try, as in the other cases, to invent names ourselves so that we may be clear and easy to follow. With regard to truth, then, the intermediate is a truthful sort of person and the mean may be called truthfulness, while the pretence which exaggerates is boastfulness and the person characterized by it a boaster, and that which understates is mock modesty and the person characterized by it mock-modest. With regard to pleasantness in the giving of amusement the intermediate person is ready-witted and the disposition ready wit, the excess is buffoonery and the person characterized by it a buffoon, while the man who falls short is a sort of boor and his state is boorishness. With regard to the remaining kind of pleasantness, that which is exhibited in life in general, the man who is pleasant in the right way is friendly and the mean is friendliness, while the man who exceeds is an obsequious person if he has no end in view, a flatterer if he is aiming at his own advantage, and the man who falls short and is unpleasant in all circumstances is a quarrelsome and surly sort of person.

 There are also means in the passions and concerned with the passions; since shame is not a virtue, and yet praise is extended to the modest man. For even in these matters one man is said to be intermediate, and another to exceed, as for instance the bashful man who is ashamed of everything; while he who falls short or is not ashamed of anything at all is shameless, and the intermediate person is modest. Righteous indignation is a mean between envy and spite, and these states are concerned with the pain and pleasure that are felt at the fortunes of our neighbours; the man who is characterized by righteous indignation is pained at undeserved good fortune, the envious man, going beyond him, is pained at all good fortune, and the spiteful man falls so far short of being pained that he even rejoices. But these states there will be an opportunity of describing elsewhere; with regard to justice, since it has not one simple meaning, we shall, after describing the other states, distinguish its two kinds and say how each of them is a mean; and similarly we shall treat also of the rational virtues.


 There are three kinds of disposition, then, two of them vices, involving excess and deficiency respectively, and one a virtue, viz. the mean, and all are in a sense opposed to all; for the extreme states are contrary both to the intermediate state and to each other, and the intermediate to the extremes; as the equal is greater relatively to the less, less relatively to the greater, so the middle states are excessive relatively to the deficiencies, deficient relatively to the excesses, both in passions and in actions. For the brave man appears rash relatively to the coward, and cowardly relatively to the rash man; and similarly the temperate man appears self-indulgent relatively to the insensible man, insensible relatively to the self-indulgent, and the liberal man prodigal relatively to the mean man, mean relatively to the prodigal. Hence also the people at the extremes push the intermediate man each over to the other, and the brave man is called rash by the coward, cowardly by the rash man, and correspondingly in the other cases.

 These states being thus opposed to one another, the greatest contrariety is that of the extremes to each other, rather than to the intermediate; for these are further from each other than from the intermediate, as the great is further from the small and the small from the great than both are from the equal. Again, to the intermediate some extremes show a certain likeness, as that of rashness to courage and that of prodigality to liberality; but the extremes show the greatest unlikeness to each other; now contraries are defined as the things that are furthest from each other, so that things that are further apart are more contrary.

 To the mean in some cases the deficiency, in some the excess is more opposed; e.g. it is not rashness, which is an excess, but cowardice, which is a deficiency, that is more opposed to courage, and not insensibility, which is a deficiency, but self-indulgence, which is an excess, that is more opposed to temperance. This happens from two reasons, one being drawn from the thing itself; for because one extreme is nearer and liker to the intermediate, we oppose not this but rather its contrary to the intermediate. E.g. since rashness is thought liker and nearer to courage, and cowardice more unlike, we oppose rather the latter to courage; for things that are further from the intermediate are thought more contrary to it. This, then, is one cause, drawn from the thing itself; another is drawn from ourselves; for the things to which we ourselves more naturally tend seem more contrary to the intermediate. For instance, we ourselves tend more naturally to pleasures, and hence are more easily carried away towards self-indulgence than towards propriety. We describe as contrary to the mean, then, rather the directions in which we more often go to great lengths; and therefore self-indulgence, which is an excess, is the more contrary to temperance.


 That moral virtue is a mean, then, and in what sense it is so, and that it is a mean between two vices, the one involving excess, the other deficiency, and that it is such because its character is to aim at what is intermediate in passions and in actions, has been sufficiently stated. Hence also it is no easy task to be good. For in everything it is no easy task to find the middle, e.g. to find the middle of a circle is not for every one but for him who knows; so, too, any one can get angry- that is easy- or give or spend money; but to do this to the right person, to the right extent, at the right time, with the right motive, and in the right way, that is not for every one, nor is it easy; wherefore goodness is both rare and laudable and noble.

 Hence he who aims at the intermediate must first depart from what is the more contrary to it, as Calypso advises-

 Hold the ship out beyond that surf and spray.

 For of the extremes one is more erroneous, one less so; therefore, since to hit the mean is hard in the extreme, we must as a second best, as people say, take the least of the evils; and this will be done best in the way we describe. But we must consider the things towards which we ourselves also are easily carried away; for some of us tend to one thing, some to another; and this will be recognizable from the pleasure and the pain we feel. We must drag ourselves away to the contrary extreme; for we shall get into the intermediate state by drawing well away from error, as people do in straightening sticks that are bent.

 Now in everything the pleasant or pleasure is most to be guarded against; for we do not judge it impartially. We ought, then, to feel towards pleasure as the elders of the people felt towards Helen, and in all circumstances repeat their saying; for if we dismiss pleasure thus we are less likely to go astray. It is by doing this, then, (to sum the matter up) that we shall best be able to hit the mean.

This is true only of those who are not yet virtuous. In the truly virtuous, pleasure will be an accurate guide to the mean, because in virtuous people doing what is right causes pleasure and not doing so causes pain.

 But this is no doubt difficult, and especially in individual cases; for or is not easy to determine both how and with whom and on what provocation and how long one should be angry; for we too sometimes praise those who fall short and call them good-tempered, but sometimes we praise those who get angry and call them manly. The man, however, who deviates little from goodness is not blamed, whether he do so in the direction of the more or of the less, but only the man who deviates more widely; for he does not fail to be noticed. But up to what point and to what extent a man must deviate before he becomes blameworthy it is not easy to determine by reasoning, any more than anything else that is perceived by the senses; such things depend on particular facts, and the decision rests with perception. So much, then, is plain, that the intermediate state is in all things to be praised, but that we must incline sometimes towards the excess, sometimes towards the deficiency; for so shall we most easily hit the mean and what is right.

5.1 Ethical Virtue as Disposition--Richard Kraut

Furthermore, every ethical virtue is a condition intermediate between two other states, one involving excess, and the other deficiency (1106a26-b28). In this respect, 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: all are located on a map that places the virtues between states of excess and deficiency. He is careful to add, however, that the mean is to be determined in a way that takes into account the particular circumstances of the individual (1106a36-b7). The arithmetic mean between 10 and 2 is 6, and this is so invariably, whatever is being counted. But the intermediate point that is chosen by an expert in any of the crafts will vary from one situation to another. There is no universal rule, for example, about how much food an athlete should eat, and it would be absurd to infer from the fact that 10 lbs. is too much and 2 lbs. too little for me that I should eat 6 lbs. Finding the mean in any given situation is not a mechanical or thoughtless procedure, but requires a full and detailed acquaintance with the circumstances.

It should be evident that Aristotle's treatment of virtues as mean states endorses the idea that we should sometimes have strong feelings—when such feelings are called for by our situation. Sometimes only a small degree of anger is appropriate; but at other times, circumstances call for great anger. The right amount is not some quantity between zero and the highest possible level, but rather the amount, whatever it happens to be, that is proportionate to the seriousness of the situation. Of course, Aristotle is committed to saying that anger should never reach the point at which it undermines reason; and this means that our passion should always fall short of the extreme point at which we would lose control. But it is possible to be very angry without going to this extreme, and Aristotle does not intend to deny this.

A defense of Aristotle would have to say that the virtuous person does after all aim at a mean, if we allow for a broad enough notion of what sort of aiming is involved. For example, consider a juror who must determine whether a defendant is guilty as charged. He does not have before his mind a quantitative question; he is trying to decide whether the accused committed the crime, and is not looking for some quantity of action intermediate between extremes. Nonetheless, an excellent juror can be described as someone who, in trying to arrive at the correct decision, seeks to express the right degree of concern for all relevant considerations. He searches for the verdict that results from a deliberative process that is neither overly credulous or unduly skeptical. Similarly, in facing situations that arouse anger, a virtuous agent must determine what action (if any) to take in response to an insult, and although this is not itself a quantitative question, his attempt to answer it properly requires him to have the right degree of concern for his standing as a member of the community. He aims at a mean in the sense that he looks for a response that avoids too much or too little attention to factors that must be taken into account in making a wise decision.

Perhaps a greater difficulty can be raised if we ask how Aristotle determines which emotions are governed by the doctrine of the mean. Consider someone who loves to wrestle, for example. Is this passion something that must be felt by every human being at appropriate times and to the right degree? Surely someone who never felt this emotion to any degree could still live a perfectly happy life. Why then should we not say the same about at least some of the emotions that Aristotle builds into his analysis of the ethically virtuous agent? Why should we experience anger at all, or fear, or the degree of concern for wealth and honor that Aristotle commends? These are precisely the questions that were asked in antiquity by the Stoics, and they came to the conclusion that such common emotions as anger and fear are always inappropriate. Aristotle assumes, on the contrary, not simply that these common passions are sometimes appropriate, but that it is essential that every human being learn how to master them and experience them in the right way at the right times. A defense of his position would have to show that the emotions that figure in his account of the virtues are valuable components of any well-lived human life, when they are experienced properly. Perhaps such a project could be carried out, but Aristotle himself does not attempt to do so.


  In order to be virtuous, we first need to understand what it is to be virtuous in general and in specific. That is we need to understand what our end in life is and what needs to be done in the here and now to move toward that aim. More specifically, we will need to understand what a courageous man would do in a situation we face where courage is an issue. And we willl need to understand what a just man would do in a situation where justice is an issue, and so on. These capacities are the intellectual virtues, which Aristotle calls “theoretical wisdom.”

But understanding alone is not enough to cause us to be virtuous. Mere intellectual understanding is too weak a motivater. We are more motivated by pleasure. And so we need to train ourselves to get pleasure from doing what is right. Moral development consists in habitually doing what is right; in time we shall get pleasure from doing so, and we shall find that conflicts between what we should do and what would be pleasant to do diminish and in the truly virtuous man, disappear.  These trained dispositions to act in the right way are  the moral virtues such as courage which will motivate us to do what we know we should do.

In Aristotle Lecture, Ian Johnston gives us this explanation:

1. The moral person must be able to evaluate a particular situation, to recognize it for what it is and in relation to any actions which he or

she might undertake to respond to it. Such analytical skills, that

ability to "size up" a particular event, come from experience, habit,

and education. 

2. The moral person must have been able to work out through reason some

knowledge of the overall good as such. In other words, he must have a

developed sense of what he wants his life, as a totality, to add up to,

a standard for living well. Such a standard is given to the individual

by the community in its traditions, role models, and formal education. 

3. The moral person must be able to use his judgment to reason from the general notion of

the good as such to a conclusion about the specific

action to be done in this circumstance.

4. Practical wisdom is the ability to organize and use these different

intellectual abilities and thus to select the right means for the

attainment of the appropriate goals and to issue commands for action.

The man of practical wisdom (the /phronimos/) understands how to behave

from one situation to the next in the pursuit of the appropriate goals

in the appropriate ways because he knows how to construct his life in

accordance with the realities of the world around him and with the

realities of his own abilities and stage of life.

5. To this list Aristotle adds, almost as an afterthought, the notion of

cleverness, the ability "to perform those steps which are conducive to a

goal we have set for ourselves and to attain that goal" (169). Practical

wisdom, in other words, also includes a component of efficient skill,

the ability to carry out intelligently the decisions one has made.

 It is possible to come to the correct conclusion erroneously (by chance or luck), but the true phronimos will go through the process correctly and make the morally right choice.

What this process involves is the ability to bring to bear on particular situations a knowledge of general principles which relate to the ends of a purposeful good life and an intelligent sense of the particular situation facing the person, together with the intellectual skill to combine these characteristics, so that judgment  tells us what the right action in this case is. This process will involve recognizing relevant circumstances and reasoning correctly from an awareness of the various goods and their relationship to the highest good to make the best decision about the particular options.

The process begins with an informed awareness of a particular situation: "The man of highest practical wisdom is the man who brings to bear upon a situation the greatest number of genuinely pertinent concerns and genuinely relevant considerations commensurate with the importance of the deliberative context" . This perception then calls into play the relevant major premise that "spells out the general import of the concern that makes this feature the salient feature of the situation" .

4. Virtues and Deficiencies, Continence and Incontinence--Richard  Kraut

Aristotle distinguishes two kinds of virtue (1103a1-10): those that pertain to the part of the soul that engages in reasoning (virtues of mind or intellect), and those that pertain to the part of the soul that cannot itself reason but is nonetheless capable of following reason (ethical virtues, virtues of character). Intellectual virtues are in turn divided into two sorts: those that pertain to theoretical reasoning, and those that pertain to practical thinking 1139a3-8). He organizes his material by first studying ethical virtue in general, then moving to a discussion of particular ethical virtues (temperance, courage, and so on), and finally completing his survey by considering the intellectual virtues (practical wisdom, theoretical wisdom, etc.).

All free males are born with the potential to become ethically virtuous and practically wise, but to achieve these goals they must go through two stages: during their childhood, they must develop the proper habits; and then, when their reason is fully developed, they must acquire practical wisdom (phronêsis). This does not mean that first we fully acquire the ethical virtues, and then, at a later stage, add on practical wisdom. Ethical virtue is fully developed only when it is combined with practical wisdom (1144b14-17). A low-grade form of ethical virtue emerges in us during childhood as we are repeatedly placed in situations that call for appropriate actions and emotions; but as we rely less on others and become capable of doing more of our own thinking, we learn to develop a larger picture of human life, our deliberative skills improve, and our emotional responses are perfected. Like anyone who has developed a skill in performing a complex and difficult activity, the virtuous person takes pleasure in exercising his intellectual skills. Furthermore, when he has decided what to do, he does not have to contend with internal pressures to act otherwise. He does not long to do something that he regards as shameful; and he is not greatly distressed at having to give up a pleasure that he realizes he should forego.

Aristotle places those who suffer from such internal disorders into one of three categories: (A) Some agents, having reached a decision about what to do on a particular occasion, experience some counter-pressure brought on by an appetite for pleasure, or anger, or some other emotion; and this countervailing influence is not completely under the control of reason. (1) Within this category, some are typically better able to resist these counter-rational pressures than is the average person. Such people are not virtuous, although they generally do what a virtuous person does. Aristotle calls them “continent” (enkratês). But (2) others are less successful than the average person in resisting these counter-pressures. They are “incontinent” (akratês). (The explanation of akrasia is a topic to which we will return in section 8.) In addition, (B) there is a type of agent who refuses even to try to do what an ethically virtuous agent would do, because he has become convinced that justice, temperance, generosity and the like are of little or no value. Such people Aristotle calls evil (kakos, phaulos). He assumes that evil people are driven by desires for domination and luxury, and although they are single-minded in their pursuit of these goals, he portrays them as deeply divided, because their pleonexiatheir desire for more and more—leaves them dissatisfied and full of self-hatred.

It should be noticed that all three of these deficiencies—continence, incontinence, vice—involve some lack of internal harmony. (Here Aristotle's debt to Plato is particularly evident, for one of the central ideas of the Republic is that the life of a good person is harmonious, and all other lives deviate to some degree from this ideal.) The evil person may wholeheartedly endorse some evil plan of action at a particular moment, but over the course of time, Aristotle supposes, he will regret his decision, because whatever he does will prove inadequate for the achievement of his goals (1166b5-29). Aristotle assumes that when someone systematically makes bad decisions about how to live his life, his failures are caused by psychological forces that are less than fully rational. His desires for pleasure, power or some other external goal have become so strong that they make him care too little or not at all about acting ethically. To keep such destructive inner forces at bay, we need to develop the proper habits and emotional responses when we are children, and to reflect intelligently on our aims when we are adults. But some vulnerability to these disruptive forces is present even in more-or-less virtuous people; that is why even a good political community needs laws and the threat of punishment. Clear thinking about the best goals of human life and the proper way to put them into practice is a rare achievement, because the human psyche is not a hospitable environment for the development of these insights.

Possible types of action according to Aristotle.

In every situation, there is some action that is the appropiate one. Sometimes it's appropriate to be angry, for example. Sometimes it's not appropriate to be angry.

There is only one way to go right: to do the appropriate thing in the circumstances for the right reasons without internal conflict. But there are two main ways to go wrong:

A. Deficiency in intellectual virtue: One may apply poor judgment in assessing what action is appropriate for the circumstance. One may lack some necessary facts, for example, or engage in self-deception, or just reason poorly. Thus one would judge that one should act in such a way when in fact the appropriate action is different.

B. Deficiency in moral virtue: One may judge correctly what it is appropriate to do but lack the necessary character traits to enable one to  do so. One may know that one shouldn't get angry at one's kids for spilling the milk, but get angry anyway because of a lack of self-control.

Generally, Aristotle believes that the following four mixtures of character and action  are possible:

  1. Character virtuous/action appropriate: One may do the right thing out of harmonious motives and feelings, with no internal conflict. This is the only truly virtuous action. It is a state of happiness.

  2. Character mixed/action appropriate (enkrateia): One may do the right thing but with mixed feelings and motives, in a state of internal conflict and tension, with “rebellious but temporarily self-controlled feelings.” This is a state of self-control or continence

  3. Character mixed/action inappropriate (akrasia)*. : One may do the wrong thing with mixed feelings and motives. This is weakness of the will, lack of self-control, incontinence

  4. Character vicious/action inappropriate: One may do the wrong thing out of unconflicted harmonious bad motives and feelings. This is truly evil action. Pleonexia leads to constant and deep dissatisfaction and unhappiness.

*Aristotle does not actually think that akrasia is possible, but common sense says that it is and it would take us too far out of the way into Aristotelian scholarship to see why he doesn't think so.

It is much better to do 2 than 3, though internally the differences might be very small.

 “We can imagine that frequently the inner difference will be very small, a tiny tilting of the balance of thought and feeling. And in some cases, this difference may be made not so much by some extra degree of moral strength at all, but by some feature of the circumstances over which the agent does not have full control: the absence of a supremely-tempting object, the presence of some unusual pressure or temptation. Aristotle does urge us, in assessing such cases, to consider how the agent’s disposition stands to the usual case. If she yields to a pressure that most good people would withstand, we judge her harshly. If she yields to extreme circumstantial pressures, we are asked for forgiveness and some indulgence of judgment. But Aristotle does not as us to simply forget what the person has in fact done. The action is there and it makes things morally different. Many of us would do something shameful if pressed hard enough; and yet the few who have the bad luck to be so pressed will be judged for their acts, while the rest of us will not. On the other hand,  a person who forms bad thoughts and wishes but never carries them into action for want of an occasion will be judged harshly, to be sure, but not nearly as harshly as the person who actually does these acts.

                             Martha Nussbaum, The Therapy of Desire  p. 364


Aristotle thus differs with the Biblical morality which urges that he who has committed adultery in his heart is the moral equivalent of the person who has actually done the deed. Aristotle's view of the difference between enkrateia and akrasia parallels Hannah Arendt's idea of the "banality of evil". See this link:

Aristotle investigates character traits—continence and incontinence—that are not as blameworthy as the vices but not as praiseworthy as the virtues. (We began our discussion of these qualities in section 4.) The Greek terms are akrasia (“incontinence”; literally: “lack of mastery”) and enkrateia (“continence”; literally “mastery”). An akratic person goes against reason as a result of some pathos (“emotion,” “feeling”). Like the akratic, an enkratic person experiences a feeling that is contrary to reason; but unlike the akratic, he acts in accordance with reason. His defect consists solely in the fact that, more than most people, he experiences passions that conflict with his rational choice. The akratic person has not only this defect, but has the further flaw that he gives in to feeling rather than reason more often than the average person.

Aristotle distinguishes two kinds of akrasia: impetuosity (propeteia) and weakness (astheneia). The person who is weak goes through a process of deliberation and makes a choice; but rather than act in accordance with his reasoned choice, he acts under the influence of a passion. By contrast, the impetuous person does not go through a process of deliberation and does not make a reasoned choice; he simply acts under the influence of a passion. At the time of action, the impetuous person experiences no internal conflict. But once his act has been completed, he regrets what he has done. One could say that he deliberates, if deliberation were something that post-dated rather than preceded action; but the thought process he goes through after he acts comes too late to save him from error.

It is important to bear in mind that when Aristotle talks about impetuosity and weakness, he is discussing chronic conditions. The impetuous person is someone who acts emotionally and fails to deliberate not just once or twice but with some frequency; he makes this error more than most people do. Because of this pattern in his actions, we would be justified in saying of the impetuous person that had his passions not prevented him from doing so, he would have deliberated and chosen an action different from the one he did perform.

The two kinds of passions that Aristotle focuses on, in his treatment of akrasia, are the appetite for pleasure and anger. Either can lead to impetuosity and weakness. But Aristotle gives pride of place to the appetite for pleasure as the passion that undermines reason. He calls the kind of akrasia caused by an appetite for pleasure “unqualified akrasia”—or, as we might say, akrasiafull stop”; akrasia caused by anger he considers a qualified form of akrasia and calls it akrasiawith respect to anger”. We thus have these four forms of akrasia: (A) impetuosity caused by pleasure, (B) impetuosity caused by anger, (C) weakness caused by pleasure (D) weakness caused by anger.

Aristotle insists on the power of the emotions to rival, weaken or bypass reason. Emotion challenges reason in all three of these ways. In both the akratic and the enkratic, it competes with reason for control over action; even when reason wins, it faces the difficult task of having to struggle with an internal rival. Second, in the akratic, it temporarily robs reason of its full acuity, thus handicapping it as a competitor. It is not merely a rival force, in these cases; it is a force that keeps reason from fully exercising its power. And third, passion can make someone impetuous; here its victory over reason is so powerful that the latter does not even enter into the arena of conscious reflection until it is too late to influence action.


Book 10, Chapter 9: Learning to be Virtuous



If these matters and the virtues, and also friendship and pleasure, have been dealt with sufficiently in outline, are we to suppose that our programme has reached its end? Surely, as the saying goes, where there are things to be done the end is not to survey and recognize the various things, but rather to do them; with regard to virtue, then, it is not enough to know, but we must try to have and use it, or try any other way there may be of becoming good. Now if arguments were in themselves enough to make men good, they would justly, as Theognis says, have won very great rewards, and such rewards should have been provided; but as things are, while they seem to have power to encourage and stimulate the generous-minded among our youth, and to make a character which is gently born, and a true lover of what is noble, ready to be possessed by virtue, they are not able to encourage the many to nobility and goodness. For these do not by nature obey the sense of shame, but only fear, and do not abstain from bad acts because of their baseness but through fear of punishment; living by passion they pursue their own pleasures and the means to them, and and the opposite pains, and have not even a conception of what is noble and truly pleasant, since they have never tasted it. What argument would remould such people? It is hard, if not impossible, to remove by argument the traits that have long since been incorporated in the character; and perhaps we must be content if, when all the influences by which we are thought to become good are present, we get some tincture of virtue.

Now some think that we are made good by nature, others by habituation, others by teaching. Nature's part evidently does not depend on us, but as a result of some divine causes is present in those who are truly fortunate; while argument and teaching, we may suspect, are not powerful with all men, but the soul of the student must first have been cultivated by means of habits for noble joy and noble hatred, like earth which is to nourish the seed. For he who lives as passion directs will not hear argument that dissuades him, nor understand it if he does; and how can we persuade one in such a state to change his ways? And in general passion seems to yield not to argument but to force. The character, then, must somehow be there already with a kinship to virtue, loving what is noble and hating what is base.

But it is difficult to get from youth up a right training for virtue if one has not been brought up under right laws; for to live temperately and hardily is not pleasant to most people, especially when they are young. For this reason their nurture and occupations should be fixed by law; for they will not be painful when they have become customary. But it is surely not enough that when they are young they should get the right nurture and attention; since they must, even when they are grown up, practise and be habituated to them, we shall need laws for this as well, and generally speaking to cover the whole of life; for most people obey necessity rather than argument, and punishments rather than the sense of what is noble.

This is why some think that legislators ought to stimulate men to virtue and urge them forward by the motive of the noble, on the assumption that those who have been well advanced by the formation of habits will attend to such influences; and that punishments and penalties should be imposed on those who disobey and are of inferior nature, while the incurably bad should be completely banished. A good man (they think), since he lives with his mind fixed on what is noble, will submit to argument, while a bad man, whose desire is for pleasure, is corrected by pain like a beast of burden. This is, too, why they say the pains inflicted should be those that are most opposed to the pleasures such men love.

However that may be, if (as we have said) the man who is to be good must be well trained and habituated, and go on to spend his time in worthy occupations and neither willingly nor unwillingly do bad actions, and if this can be brought about if men live in accordance with a sort of reason and right order, provided this has force, -- if this be so, the paternal command indeed has not the required force or compulsive power (nor in general has the command of one man, unless he be a king or something similar), but the law has compulsive power, while it is at the same time a rule proceeding from a sort of practical wisdom and reason. And while people hate men who oppose their impulses, even if they oppose them rightly, the law in its ordaining of what is good is not burdensome.

In the Spartan state alone, or almost alone, the legislator seems to have paid attention to questions of nurture and occupations; in most states such matters have been neglected, and each man lives as he pleases, Cyclops-fashion, 'to his own wife and children dealing law'. Now it is best that there should be a public and proper care for such matters; but if they are neglected by the community it would seem right for each man to help his children and friends towards virtue, and that they should have the power, or at least the will, to do this.

It would seem from what has been said that he can do this better if he makes himself capable of legislating. For public control is plainly effected by laws, and good control by good laws; whether written or unwritten would seem to make no difference, nor whether they are laws providing for the education of individuals or of groups -- any more than it does in the case of music or gymnastics and other such pursuits. For as in cities laws and prevailing types of character have force, so in households do the injunctions and the habits of the father, and these have even more because of the tie of blood and the benefits he confers; for the children start with a natural affection and disposition to obey. Further, private education has an advantage over public, as private medical treatment has; for while in general rest and abstinence from food are good for a man in a fever, for a particular man they may not be; and a boxer presumably does not prescribe the same style of fighting to all his pupils. It would seem, then, that the detail is worked out with more precision if the control is private; for each person is more likely to get what suits his case.

But the details can be best looked after, one by one, by a doctor or gymnastic instructor or any one else who has the general knowledge of what is good for every one or for people of a certain kind (for the sciences both are said to be, and are, concerned with what is universal); not but what some particular detail may perhaps be well looked after by an unscientific person, if he has studied accurately in the light of experience what happens in each case, just as some people seem to be their own best doctors, though they could give no help to any one else. None the less, it will perhaps be agreed that if a man does wish to become master of an art or science he must go to the universal, and come to know it as well as possible; for, as we have said, it is with this that the sciences are concerned.

And surely he who wants to make men, whether many or few, better by his care must try to become capable of legislating, if it is through laws that we can become good. For to get any one whatever -- any one who is put before us -- into the right condition is not for the first chance comer; if any one can do it, it is the man who knows, just as in medicine and all other matters which give scope for care and prudence.

Must we not, then, next examine whence or how one can learn how to legislate? Is it, as in all other cases, from statesmen? Certainly it was thought to be a part of statesmanship. Or is a difference apparent between statesmanship and the other sciences and arts? In the others the same people are found offering to teach the arts and practising them, e.g. doctors or painters; but while the sophists profess to teach politics, it is practised not by any of them but by the politicians, who would seem to do so by dint of a certain skill and experience rather than of thought; for they are not found either writing or speaking about such matters (though it were a nobler occupation perhaps than composing speeches for the law-courts and the assembly), nor again are they found to have made statesmen of their own sons or any other of their friends. But it was to be expected that they should if they could; for there is nothing better than such a skill that they could have left to their cities, or could prefer to have for themselves, or, therefore, for those dearest to them. Still, experience seems to contribute not a little; else they could not have become politicians by familiarity with politics; and so it seems that those who aim at knowing about the art of politics need experience as well.

But those of the sophists who profess the art seem to be very far from teaching it. For, to put the matter generally, they do not even know what kind of thing it is nor what kinds of things it is about; otherwise they would not have classed it as identical with rhetoric or even inferior to it, nor have thought it easy to legislate by collecting the laws that are thought well of; they say it is possible to select the best laws, as though even the selection did not demand intelligence and as though right judgement were not the greatest thing, as in matters of music. For while people experienced in any department judge rightly the works produced in it, and understand by what means or how they are achieved, and what harmonizes with what, the inexperienced must be content if they do not fail to see whether the work has been well or ill made -- as in the case of painting. Now laws are as it were the' works' of the political art; how then can one learn from them to be a legislator, or judge which are best? Even medical men do not seem to be made by a study of text-books. Yet people try, at any rate, to state not only the treatments, but also how particular classes of people can be cured and should be treated -- distinguishing the various habits of body; but while this seems useful to experienced people, to the inexperienced it is valueless. Surely, then, while collections of laws, and of constitutions also, may be serviceable to those who can study them and judge what is good or bad and what enactments suit what circumstances, those who go through such collections without a practised faculty will not have right judgement (unless it be as a spontaneous gift of nature), though they may perhaps become more intelligent in such matters.

Now our predecessors have left the subject of legislation to us unexamined; it is perhaps best, therefore, that we should ourselves study it, and in general study the question of the constitution, in order to complete to the best of our ability our philosophy of human nature. First, then, if anything has been said well in detail by earlier thinkers, let us try to review it; then in the light of the constitutions we have collected let us study what sorts of influence preserve and destroy states, and what sorts preserve or destroy the particular kinds of constitution, and to what causes it is due that some are well and others ill administered. When these have been studied we shall perhaps be more likely to see with a comprehensive view, which constitution is best, and how each must be ordered, and what laws and customs it must use, if it is to be at its best. Let us make a beginning of our discussion.