Nicomachean Ethics - Book II Summary & Analysis

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Aristotle takes up the subject of the nature of virtue. There are two types of virtue as he defines it, virtue of thought and virtue of character. (p. 18) These correspond to their origins. Virtue of thought comes about through teaching, while virtue of character is brought out through habit. This virtue of character is a capacity that all people are born with, Aristotle writes, and by exercising this capacity for virtue like a harpist practices a performance, a person develops a virtuous character. For this reason, he suggests, it is vitally important that virtuous behavior be practiced from the youngest age.

Aristotle looks at the type of habituation that should be desired. Here again he warns against looking for too precise a definition, as it is impossible and indeed not required to make specific definitions. He draws an analogy between virtue and the states of health and strength in a body. Each individual will have different requirements to maintain his health and strength, so trying to define a universal prescription is pointless.

Keeping with this analogy, Aristotle points out that in maintaining health and strength, it is not good to do too much or too little. Excess, such as eating a lot, will destroy health, as will eating too little. This is true of other human traits such as bravery and pleasure seeking. In all things, including virtue of character it is implied, Aristotle says there is an average between the two extremes that is the right balance. He calls this the "mean," and it is one of the central ideas of the work. (p. 20) Training the habits toward this mean is the best way to ensure the best results.

Driving us toward this mean, Aristotle continues, are pleasure and pain. Each has its role in creating a balance in the virtuous character, and indeed the nature of both virtue and of vice can be discussed in terms of pleasure and pain and how they are appropriate in various circumstances. Using pleasure and pain properly, Aristotle suggests, increases virtue. Using them wrongly ruins it.

Aristotle addresses what he perceives may be an objection to his argument that performing virtuous actions will reinforce a virtuous character. It is possible, for instance, to do something that is virtuous but to do it accidentally or with the wrong intent. Aristotle agrees with this rhetorical objection, and adds that the virtuous action is not judged alone. The person performing the action must also be in the "right state" when he performs them. He must know that he is doing something virtuous, he must do the virtuous act intentionally, and his state must be "firm and unchanging." (p. 22) Otherwise, the actions themselves may be described as being consistent with something a virtuous person would do, but not have the desired effect on the habits of the person performing them. Aristotle closes this section of his argument by adding that many people examine the nature of these actions and think that this alone is enough to make them better people. They do not put their philosophy into practice, however, and so their pursuits are ultimately futile. Here Aristotle reinforces that he is after practical guidance in examining the nature of virtue, not simply out to describe it.

Aristotle defines three "conditions" of the soul, which he calls feelings, capacities, and states. (p. 23) Feelings are things like emotions and instincts, such as love and hunger. Capacities are the potential for having these feelings, how capable a person to show pity or anger, for instance. States are the general conditions of an individual's feelings. He may be too quick to anger or too slow, for example, or in some intermediate state.

Virtues and vices, Aristotle argues, are not feelings. His reasoning is that people are judged based on the virtues or vices they have, not on their feelings. One might be judged badly for the vice of overeating, for instance, but one is not judged badly simply for being hungry. In addition, Aristotle has already shown that true virtues and vices require a conscious decision, and feelings do not. The same is true of capacities, he continues. In addition, capacities arise naturally, and he has already shown that goodness and badness are not inborn natural traits. Since virtues are not feelings and are not capacities, they must be states, Aristotle concludes by elimination.

Aristotle goes on to examine what kind of state virtue of character is, and here he returns to the idea of the mean that he alluded to earlier in the section. Every virtue, he argues, causes the thing that possesses it to perform its function well. (p. 23) These qualities of virtue must be present in the proper balance, however, or else they have the opposite effect. For all things, there is an intermediate level, or mean, that is best. This mean is not universal, but is specific to each person. Aristotle uses the example of food. The proper amount of food for an accomplished athlete to eat is perhaps not the same for a young beginner, for instance.

To summarize Aristotle's argument, virtue is a state, then, that aims at the mean of proper action that is appropriate for each individual. These actions are determined by reason, which should be made best able to judge the proper action through habituation.

Aristotle next turns to the specific virtues of character. He defines several means, naming their deficiencies and excesses. The mean of fear is bravery, its excess is called cowardice and its deficiency called rashness. For the mean of friendliness, the excessively friendly person is perhaps a flatterer while the person deficient in friendliness is "ill-tempered." Aristotle again seeks to use actual examples to demonstrate that his philosophical theory corresponds to familiar aspects of the real world. He offers many examples, indicating that special attention must be given to the mean of justice and reason, which he will take up later in the work. These three states, deficiency, excess and the mean, are opposed to one another. Two are vices and one a virtue, as Aristotle describes them. Furthermore, their definitions are relative to the person judging them. A rash person might consider a brave person a coward, for example, while a coward might call a brave person rash.

To achieve the mean, Aristotle suggests, each person must plot his own course. He must become aware of his own natural tendencies toward one extreme or the other and steer toward the opposite extreme. This is difficult, he admits, but repeats that the goal is not to trace a perfectly straight line, but to approach it as an average state.

In this section, Aristotle lays out the course he himself will take over the next several sections where he continues his discussion of the nature of virtue of character. He will also return to the list of characteristics, which he enumerated in this section, and further discuss the mean state for each of them, adding sections on justice and reason.

This section contains 1,163 words
(approx. 3 pages at 400 words per page)
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