Lets talk about virtue. There are two kinds of virtues: virtues of character, and virtues of thinking. Virtues of thinking come from teaching, time, and experience. Virtues of character come from habit, not nature. Virtues are appropriated by exhibiting them, which is why it is essential for a virtuous person to have been habituated from childhood.
Aristotle makes explicit that he is investigating ethics in order to become good, not merely for contemplation, like his other investigations. And like health, there is nothing rigid about what is right ethical action. The right action is dependent upon the situation. And in each situation the virtues can be destroyed by lack and excess (missing the mark).
We will return to lack and excess, but first Aristotle addresses the role of pleasure and pain. Often people make base choices seaking simple pleasure, while at other times make cowardly choices in the avoidance of pain. A virtuous person, in contrast, does the virtuous thing for the right reason. A virtuous person does not even experience the base pleasure as pleasure, or fear of pain as fear. In this way the virtuous person is free from pleasure and pain, but let it be pointed out that he or she is only free from pleasure and pain as he or she “ought to be.”
One possesses a virtue only if he or she acts out that virtue 1) knowingly, 2) having intentionally chosen the virtue for its own sake, and 3) being in a stable condition, or at least able to bounce back. Aristotle is attempting to avoid circular reasoning by not only saying one is only just by being just, but by being just in the right way. It takes more than action without intention, talk, and philosophy. It takes habituation.
Present in the soul are feelings, predispositions, and active conditions. Aristotle assumes that virtue must be one of these. Feelings are essentially emotions. Predispositions are predisposed emotions. Active conditions are the active states we exhibit, whether badly or well, and we can be praised for those exhibited well. In his attempt to determine which one of this pertains to virtue Aristotle points at that we are not praised for our dispositions and feelings, and that virtue is a kind of a choice, therefore, the virtues pertain to active conditions.
But to be more specific, the virtues are active conditions leading to excellence. Aristotle then introduces the concept of the mean, explaining it as he goes along. The mean in relation to us is what neither goes too far, nor falls short, and this is not one thing or the same thing for everyone. The example of Milo the Olympian versus the beginner trainer exemplifies how the mean of training for a great athlete is excessive for someone whose body is not prepared.
When one feels feelings in the right way, towards the right person, that is the mean. Virtue of character makes one apt to hit the mean. There are many ways to miss the mean, but there is only one way to hit the mean.
But just as in some things the mean is the excess, other means are the lack. And some things are base in and of themselves, and are neither an excess or a lack.
In this chapter Aristotle looks at particulars. Between fear and confidence is courage. Too much fearlessness has no name, but it is essentially a lack of fear. Too much confidence is rashness. Too much lack of courage is cowardice. Sometimes we say the mean is on one extreme, sometimes the other. Between irony and bragging is truth. There is also a mean to feelings (in addition to virtues) such as shame.
Since all of us find the mean in different places, and some of us are better habituated than others, there will be much disagreement about what is right action. The people at each of the extremes think the person at the mean is towards the other extreme. The coward calls the courageous person rash. Aristotle admits that sometimes the mean is very close to one of the extremes. Sometimes it is excess. Sometimes it is lack.
Virtue is being apt to hit the mean in feelings and actions, which is work (i.e. being at work of the soul). Aristotle says one is a greater error, and it is best to avoid the greater error (since hitting the mean is so difficult). Which is to say, we should overcorrect in order to hit the mean. Aristotle also warns against pleasure because we are easily bribed! Be warned against deceiving yourself concerning what is the good. Hitting the mean requires determining
- with whom
- on what sort of ground
- and for how much time.