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Nicomachean Ethics

Aristotle

Book IV

Book III

Book V

Summary

Having discussed courage and temperance in Book III, Aristotle now moves through the rest of the virtues, discussing them one by one.

Liberality is the right disposition with regard to spending money, while prodigality and illiberality represent excess and deficiency respectively. The liberal person will give the right amounts of money to the right people at the right times and so will take pleasure in giving: giving money only grudgingly is a sign of illiberality. Feeling no strong attachment to money, the liberal person manages resources well and does not squander money as the prodigal person would. Prodigality is better than illiberality because it is a result of foolishness rather than vice and can be easily remedied.

While liberality deals with ordinary expenditures of money, magnificence is the virtue of properly spending large sums of money on liturgies, or public gifts. Magnificence requires good taste: gaudy displays of wealth exhibit the vice of vulgarity, while spoiling a liturgy through penny-pinching is a sign of pettiness.

Magnanimity is the quality of the person who knows himself or herself to be worthy of great honors. The person who overestimates self-worth is conceited, and the person who underestimates self-worth is pusillanimous. Neither vanity nor pusillanimity are so much bad as mistaken, though pusillanimity is generally worse. The magnanimous person is great and knows it. This person therefore accepts honors knowing they are deserved, but does not take excessive pleasure in these honors. Being aware of his or her greatness and status, the magnanimous person is uncomfortable when put in a position inferior to anyone and always seeks his or her rightful superior place. Aristotle asserts of the magnanimous person that “his gait is measured, his voice deep, and his speech unhurried.”

With regard to smaller honors, there is a virtuous mean, which lies between the excess of extreme ambition and the deficiency of lacking ambition entirely.

The right disposition toward anger is similar to patience, though patience can sometimes be a deficiency, as some anger is occasionally appropriate. The excess of irascibility manifests itself in people with hot tempers, or worse, people who hold grudges and remain irritable.

Amiability, sincerity, and wit are important social virtues. Amiability is the virtuous quality of appropriate social conduct. An overeagerness to please exhibits itself in obsequiousness or flattery, while surly or quarrelsome behavior exhibits a deficiency of amiability.

Truthfulness or sincerity is a desirable mean state between the deficiency of irony or self-deprecation and the excess of boastfulness. Self-deprecation is acceptable unless it is overly pretentious, and it is certainly preferable to boastfulness, which is especially blameworthy when the boasting is directed at making undeserved gains.

Wit is important to good conversation. A person lacking in wit is boorish and will be uninteresting and easily offended. By contrast, buffoonery is the excessive vice of being too eager to get a laugh: tact is an important component of appropriate wit.

Modesty is not properly a virtue but rather a feeling that a well-bred youth ought to be capable of. Modesty consists of feeling shame at the appropriate times. A virtuous person will never do anything shameful and so will have no need of modesty, but a youth will learn to be virtuous only by feeling shame when shame is called for.

Analysis

Aristotle focuses on details in his discussion of the various virtues and vices. He discusses questions such as which vicious extreme is worse than the other and whether a particular vice is truly evil or simply a result of folly or ignorance. By contrast, we find no general attempt at justifying Aristotle’s choices of virtues and vices. The absence of general justification is made particularly glaring by the 2,300-year gap between Aristotle and ourselves. While the modern West takes some influence from the ancient Greeks, our conceptions of virtue and vice are certainly more informed by the Christian tradition than by the Greek. Aristotle makes no mention of the Christian virtues of charity, faith, or hope, and the Christian virtue of humility is considered by Aristotle to be a vice: pusillanimity.

Aristotle provides no argument for his list of virtues and vices because he assumes his readers will agree with his conception. In Book II, he asserts that virtue can be learned only through practice: no set of rational arguments can make a person virtuous.

In simply assuming a set of virtues, Aristotle may not be as far from modern moral philosophers as we think. Immanuel Kant is unlike Aristotle in that he tries to build a rational foundation for his moral maxims, but the maxims he arrives at, such as “never tell a lie under any circumstances,” are maxims we might expect from a man who was raised in a strictly Lutheran family. We might argue that Kant develops arguments that justify his preheld moral beliefs rather than approaching his conclusions with an open mind.

No one can build a moral theory from the ground up, because everyone starts with some set of moral assumptions. Philosophical theorizing might lead us to revise some of our earlier moral assumptions, but it cannot proceed without acknowledging that some moral assumptions are already in place. Similarly with Aristotle: he critically examines various virtues and vices, determining, for instance, that modesty is not in fact a virtue, but he does so only after acknowledging the moral assumptions he starts with. Moral reasoning would be impossible without some prior conception of morality.

Of course, this brings us no closer to answering the question of what we are to make of Aristotle’s virtues and vices if we do not agree with them. Aristotle provides us with no compelling reasons to change our minds. We might further ask how seriously we can take Aristotle’s Ethics as a whole if we do not accept some of his virtues and vices.

There is no easy answer to these questions. Surely Aristotle’s project is not endangered as a whole if we reject his condemnation of humility, but there is some question as to how seriously we can take Aristotle’s description of the good life if we do not think of the life he describes as particularly good. Perhaps the best way to begin approaching the problem is to understand the way of life that Aristotle’s virtues represent.

Aristotle tells us that we cannot take the virtues piecemeal: we cannot consider a person to be truly virtuous unless that person possesses all the virtues. Two of the virtues, magnificence and magnanimity, apply only to people of considerable wealth and honor. This leads us to the uncomfortable conclusion that only wealthy people can be truly virtuous.

This conclusion would not have been uncomfortable for Aristotle: he was a member of the aristocratic class and lectured only to fellow aristocrats, all of whom would have agreed that only they, as aristocrats, could be truly virtuous. In his Politics, Aristotle argues that only the independently wealthy can fully enjoy the good life.

There is an obvious class bias in Aristotle’s arguments. However, we should remember that he does not distinguish sharply between moral success and happy living. It is obvious that Aristotle and his fellow aristocrats enjoyed a much higher standard of living than the working class, women, and slaves, and that they could lay claim to greater happiness. This high standard of living makes true success and happiness, or eudaimonia, possible, so only this high standard of living can be an adequate expression of all the virtues.

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objection

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

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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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