Nicomachean Ethics

by: Aristotle

Book IV

Summary Book IV

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.