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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
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.
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
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
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.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Nicomachean Ethics!