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Book II

page 2 of 3

Aristotle suggests three practical rules of conduct: first, avoid the extreme that is farther from the mean; second, notice what errors we are particularly susceptible to and avoid them diligently; and third, be wary of pleasure, as it often impedes our judgment.


“Virtue” is the most common translation of the Greek word arete, though it is occasionally translated as “excellence.” Virtue is usually an adequate translation in the Ethics because it deals specifically with human excellence, but arete could be used to describe any kind of excellence, such as the sharpness of a knife or the fitness of an athlete. Just as a knife’s excellence rests in its sharpness, a person’s excellence rests in living according to the various moral and intellectual virtues.

Aristotle describes virtue as a disposition, distinguishing it not only from feelings and faculties, but also (less explicitly) from activities. Aristotle calls happiness an activity, or energeia, in Book I, meaning that happiness is not an emotional state but a way of life. Happiness is exhibited not in how we are but in how we act. Virtue, by contrast, is a disposition, or hexis, meaning that it is a state of being and not an activity. More precisely, virtue is the disposition to act in such a way as to lead a happy life.

Without virtue, we cannot be happy, though possessing virtue does not in itself guarantee happiness. In Book I, Chapter 8, Aristotle points out that those who win honors at the Olympic Games are not necessarily the strongest people present but rather the strongest people who actually compete. Perhaps one of the spectators is strong-er than all of the competitors, but this spectator has no right to win honors. Similarly, a person might have a virtuous disposition but will not lead a happy life unless he or she acts according to this disposition.

It may seem odd to us that Aristotle at no point argues for what dispositions should be considered virtuous and which vicious. The need for justification seems even more pressing in the modern world, where our views on virtue and vice may not entirely agree with Aristotle’s.

However, it is not Aristotle’s intention to convince us of what is virtuous, and he differs from most modern moral philosophers in placing very little emphasis on rational argument in moral development. Instead, as he argues at the beginning of Book II, learning virtue is a matter of habit and proper training. We do not become courageous by learning why courage is preferable to cowardice or rashness, but rather by being trained to be courageous. Only when we have learned to be instinctively courageous can we rightly arrive at any reasoned approval of courage. Recalling that arete may refer to any form of excellence, we might draw an analogy between learning courage and learning rock-climbing. We learn to become good rock-climbers through constant practice, not through reasoned arguments, and only when we have become good rock-climbers and appreciate firsthand the joys of rock-climbing can we properly understand why rock-climbing is a worthwhile activity.

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by ProfessorHinkley, April 06, 2014

The author of this commentary claims that Aristotle's "concept of distributive justice is meant to ensure that the greatest privilege go to those male aristocrats who exhibit the greatest virtue rather than to those who have the greatest wealth, the greatest military strength, or the most friends." This claim is superficial and grossly misleading. We need to approach books by trying to understand them as the author understands them, and in this case Aristotle articulates a principle of justice, called merit, that transcends gender and socia


24 out of 29 people found this helpful

Good Article

by m8292, September 30, 2014

Thanks for the good article.
To the previous poster: Can you explain where you see that Aristotle's principle is meant by the author to transcend gender etc.? I am especially confused by this because you state that we should not read the book as it might be interpreted, but as the author intended it to be interpreted (if I got you right). Doesn't it seem highly unlikely that someone like Aristotle would include anyone but citizens of the polis in his considerations? Do you have any citation that would support Aristotle including women ... Read more


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by arclexico, February 23, 2015

Thank you Sparknotes for your great and concise articles. I got 95/100 on my exam.


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