Lesson 6: The Definition of Virtue


Happiness as Virtuous Activity

Aristotle points out that the term happiness can stand for the ultimate end of human behavior. Like the ultimate end, happiness is sought for its own sake, not for the sake of anything further.

Let us again return to the good we are seeking, and ask what it can be. It seems different in different actions and arts; it is different in medicine, in strategy, and in the other arts likewise. What then is the good of each? Surely that for the sake of which everything else is done. In medicine this is health, in strategy victory, in architecture a house, in any other sphere something else, and in every action and pursuit the end; for it is for the sake of this that all men do whatever else they do. Therefore, if there is an end for all that we do, this will be the good achievable by action, and if there are more than one, these will be the goods achievable by action.

It is with this summary that Aristotle begins chapter seven of Book One. He has just completed his criticism of Plato's Idea of Goodness, a separate entity, and not something achievable by action. Returning to action, Aristotle again stresses the variety of the things we do and of the number of department ultimate ends, so to speak. In the passage just quoted he sounds as if he were willing to let ultimate end stand for the set of such regional ultimate ends. This is not quite true, as we shall see.

But having recalled the note of the human good -- that it is sought for its own sake and other things are sought for its sake -- he points out that we can say the same of happiness. "Now such a thing happiness, above all else, is held to be; for this we choose always for itself, and never for the sake of something else, but honor, pleasure, reason, and every virtue we choose indeed for themselves (for if nothing resulted from them we should still choose each of them), but we choose them also for the sake of happiness, judging that by means of them we shall be happy." Self-sufficiency is another note of the ultimate end, and this too characterizes happiness. But it is the relation between virtue and happiness, embedded in the passage just quoted, that we want to examine.

The passage that we discussed in the previous lesson, that having to do with man's function, follows immediately on the identification of ultimate end and happiness. The concept of a function is introduced as providing a control over the meaning of good. Something or other will be a good such-and-such if it performs well its characteristic function. A man is called a good shortstop because he performs well the function associated with that position. Good is attributed to the subject by way of an activity and the adverb 'well' as applied to that activity. The adverbial modification of the function -- its being well done -- indicates the perfection or virtue (arete) of the function. That is, the term virtue enters in as the adverbial modifiction of a function. The virtue or excellence of a function is for it to be well done or well performed.

The obvious conclusion of the function analogy, accordingly, would be this. If I want to know whether a man is a good banker, I ask what banking is, what role or function it plays. The man who fulfills this function well is called a good banker. And so too with all the myriad other practices and roles that human beings can play. They give us the necessary criteria for (a) assessing the performance, and (b) calling the agent good or bad. Aristotle spelled all this out because he is seeking to determine what makes one a good man. Well, if there is a human function, the same kind of procedure can be employed and, given man's function, we can say that one who performs it well is a good man. That's the idea.

Now, when we come to specifying the human function, we proceed by isolating one activity from among the many activities found in a man: we are looking for the activity that he alone engages in, not activities he shares with other things. Taking nutrition and growing are activities found in us, but their going well is not a sufficient basis for saying we are good men. Seeing and hearing, hoping and imagining, and other activities which fall to the realm of sensation are not a sufficient basis, when they occur properly, for saying that we are good men. The demands of the function argument is that the activity that is called a thing's function marks it, is peculiar to it, sets it off from other things. Quite rightly, Aristotle points to rational activity as the distinguishing activity of human beings.

Very well. The conclusion must be this. If rational activity is the specifically human function, then to perform that activity well is a sufficient basis for one's being a good man. And, since the 'well' or excellence of a performance is dubbed its arete or virtue, the human good will be read from the virtue of rational activity or, as we may put, from the virtuous performance of rational activity.

It is important to see how virtue entered the discussion. If we were unaware of the procedure just explained, we might think that Aristotle is pulling a little rhetorical legerdemain when he introduces virtue into the discussion. If it seems to be pulled in from we know not where just because the reader can be supposed to have a favorable attitude toward it, well, then the argument, or narrative, would be a good deal different than it is. Virtue is good performance; it is the adverbial 'well' modifying a function. The agent is thus called good because of his virtue.

More will be said of virtue, but it is imperative that we see how it enters the discussion in the first place. One of the dangers of a language with a long history is that words take on a flavor and valence at a later time which becomes an obstacle for understanding their earlier uses. C.S. Lewis in his perceptive little book A Study in Words, points out a number of such 'dangerous senses' of words that can prevent our getting the point of, say, Shakespeare. When we encounter the term 'genius' in Shakespeare, we are likely to think of someone with an IQ of 142, but of course that is not how Shakespeare uses the word. So too with 'nature.' And, we can add, 'virtue'. Contemporary associations of the term reek of irony or the taint of prissiness. Or do we just think that to be virtuous is to be nice. Whatever those contemporary associations, there are certainly some that get in the way of our grasping what Aristotle means by the term. All the more reason to be as explicit as we have been about its origin in the text before us.

Let us return now to what might appear waffling on Aristotle's part when he applies the notion of function to rational activity. No sooner does he introduce the function than he seems to make it a set of activities rather than one alone. "There remains, then, an active life of the element that has a rational principle; of this, one part has such a principle in the sense of being obedient to one, the other in the sense of possessing one and exercising thought." There is the activity of thinking, and there are other activities, which while not of the rational faculty itself, are amenable to or obedient to the direction of reason. We have, then several senses of rational activity, but they are connected and graded: activities obedient to the rational principle are called rational by way of derivation. Still, this gives us two forms of the activity and thus the possibility of at least two virtues, one of thinking itself, the other of an activity obedient to the rational principle.

Aristotle returns to this in the final chapter of Book One. "Since happiness is an activity of soul in accordance with perfect virtue, we must consider the nature of virtue; for perhaps we shall thus see better the nature of happiness."

But clearly the virtue we must study is human virtue; for the good we were seeking was human good and the happiness human happiness. By human virtue we mean not that of the body but of the soul; and happiness we call an activity of soul. But if this is so, clearly the student of politics must know somehow the facts about soul, as the man who is to heal the eyes or the body as a whole must know about the eyes or the body; and all the more since politics if more prized and better than medicine; but even among doctors the best educated spend much labor on acquiring knowledge of the body. The student of politics then must study the soul . . . .

Man is a unit of soul and body, but the activities associated with body are those man has in common with other things. Other living things have souls, of course -- soul is the principle of life in living things -- but only the human soul is the seat of reason which sets man off from all other things. Furthermore, Aristotle has argued that while thinking takes its rise from sensation, it is not itself an activity of a bodily organ. In Chapter 13, of Book One, Aristotle continues this discussion by recalling a rough but true account of soul.

Some things are said about it, adequately enough, even in the discussions outside our school, and we must use these; e.g. that one element of the soul is irrational and has a rational principle. Whether these are separated as the parts of the body or of anything divisible are, or are distinct by definition but by nature inseparable, like convex and concave in the circumference of a circle, does not affect the present question.

On another occasion, Aristotle would quarrel with Plato and argue his own view of the matters just alluded to. But for purposes of moral or political philosophy, the round division, already introduced by Aristotle when he spoke of rational activity as man's function, will do. As he proceeds, we will want to keep in mind the procedure whereby Aristotle isolated man's function, that is, by distinguishing it from other activities found in us but not peculiar to us. He will seem to have forgotten this, but of course has not.

Of the irrational element one division seems to be widely distributed, and vegetative in its nature, I mean that which causes nutrition and growth; for it is this kind of power of the soul that one must assign to all nurslings and embryos, and this same power to full-grown creatures; this is more reasonable than to assign some different power to them. Now the excellence of this seems to be common to all species and not specifically human; for this part or faculty seems to function most in sleep, while goodness and badness are least manifest in sleep.... Enough of this subject, however; let us leave the nutritive faculty alone, since it has by its nature no share in human excellence.

The excellence of vegetative functioning does not manifest goodness and badness in the sense of human excellence. Why? Because its excellence does not depend on the direction of or in being obedient to reason.

There seems to be also another irrational element in the soul -- one which in a sense, however, shares in a rational principle. For we praise the rational principle of the continent man and of the incontinent, and, the part of their soul that has such a principle, since it urges them aright and toward the best objects; but there is found in them also another element naturally opposed to the rational principle, which fights against and resists that principle. For exactly as paralysed limbs when we intend to move them to the right turn on the contrary to the left, so it is with the soul; the impulse of incontinent people move in contrary directions.

Aristotle here recognizes that there is a given conflict within us, an effect of Original Sin, although of course that is not how he explains it. For him it is just naturally the case that desires consequent on sense knowledge should be in opposition to the rational direction of them to the good of the whole man. The incontinent man is one who is unable to control this contrary movement and, though he knows he should act one way, acts another. But the conflict between sense desires and reason antedates and is not caused by incontinence. However natural this opposition to the rational principle, nonetheless it can be made to obey it, as with the continent man who judges what he ought to do, feels the tug of sense appetite in the opposite direction, and manages to have the rational judgment prevail. The resulting act is rational by participation, by dint of obeying reason.

Therefore, the irrational element also appears to be twofold. For the vegetative element in no way shares in a rational principle, but the appetitive, and in general the desiring element in a sense shares in it, in so far as it listens to and obeys it . . . . That the irrational element is in some sense persuaded by a rational principle is indicated also by the giving of advice and by all reproof and exhortation. And if this element also must be said to have a rational principle, that which has a rational principle (as well as that which has not) will be twofold, one subdivision having it in a strict sense and in itself, and the other having a tendency to obey as one does one's father.

Aristotle has thus shown us that there is a controlled ambiguity or equivocation involved in the use of rational activity and thus in talk of the human function. If this function were a simple one, its perfection would be one and there would be one virtue constitutive of the human good and thus of human happiness. The way Aristotle introduces the function argument may lead us to think that this is what is coming. However, as we saw, in the very identification of the human function with rational activity, Aristotle indicated that the latter is not some one thing. This does not make the phrase equivocal tout court because there is a control over the various meanings of the phrase.

Its first and chief meaning is rational activity as such, that is, the activity of the reasoning power; its secondary meaning is the obedience to rational direction on the part of some activity other than thinking. Are there then two virtues? There are many virtues and Aristotle prepares us for this with this sketch of the geography of the soul, so to speak, with which Book One of the Ethics ends.

Virtue too is distinguished into kinds in accordance with this difference; for we say that some of the virtues are intellectual and others moral, philosophic wisdom and understanding and practical wisdom being intellectual, liberality and temperance moral. For in speaking about a man's character we do not say that he is wise or has understanding but that he is good-tempered or temperate; yet we praise the wise man also with respect to his state of mind; of states of mind we call those which merit praise virtues.

Something remarkable occurs in this final remark. While 'rational activity' applies first and chiefly to the activity of reason, 'virtue' applies first and chiefly to that rational activity which is such only secondarily, by obeying the command of reason. Furthermore, Aristotle is reminding us that rational activity in the chief sense is divided first of all by speculative and practical uses, and that there are several virtues of each of these. But virtue in the strong sense will be that which exhibits a man's character, that which tells us what he loves.

Reading Assignment

Thomas Aquinas, Disputed Questions on Virtue, pp. 1-29.

Writing Assignment

How does Thomas Aquinas use St. Augustine's definition of virtue when he provides a general definition of virtue? (Augustine's definition seems confined to infused virtue.)


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