Nicomachean Ethics - Book IV Summary & Analysis

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Book IV Summary and Analysis

Aristotle continues to describe the specific virtues of character, their scope, and their excesses and deficiencies. He next turns to the virtue of generosity, which is related to money and valuable things. The excess of generosity is wastefulness, Aristotle explains, and its deficiency he calls ungenerosity.

The truly generous person gives to the "right people at the right time and in the proper amounts, and does so with pleasure." Generosity also has a component of taking, and the generous person does not take from the wrong kind of wealth. He acquires his wealth from the proper sources, and only so that he might then give it again. Aristotle is careful to add that the raw amount that a person gives does not make him generous. It is to be measured in relation to how much he is able to give. "Hence one who gives less than another may still be more generous, if he has less to give." (p. 51)

Wasteful people take too much and give out too much and to the wrong purposes, Aristotle continues. Because they cannot expect to find an endless supply of money to spend, however, wasteful people have an easier time approaching the mean of generosity because they will eventually run out of money. Ungenerous people have a harder time becoming generous, especially those who hoard their wealth. They have the means to be generous with it, but are not. Humans are more likely to become ungenerous, Aristotle claims. It is a greater vice than wastefulness, as well as being more common.

Similar to the virtue of generosity is the virtue of magnificence. This also involves the spending of money, but in greater amounts. By magnificence, Aristotle means large public gifts such as paying for a temple or a warship for a city. The excess of magnificence he calls vulgarity, and the deficiency he calls stinginess. Vulgar people go too far in these types of gifts and are driven by a need to display their own wealth rather then for the proper reasons. The results are gifts that are in poor taste and overblown. The stingy person will spend a significant amount on a public gift, but will hold back and try to spend as little as possible on it. Since the result is still a public gift, however, Aristotle claims that these vices are not as bad as others.

Aristotle turns next to a virtue he calls magnanimity. A magnanimous person is one who is capable of achieving great things and is worthy of those achievements. The excess of this virtue comes when a person thinks he is more worthy than he actually is, making him vain. The deficiency of this virtue was when a person thinks he is less worthy than he actually is, making him timid. Like generosity, magnanimity is relative to the ability of each person. The same claim might be a vain one if it is made by someone unworthy of it, but a magnanimous one if made by a worthy person. Magnanimity is "a sort of adornment of the virtues; for it makes them greater, and it does not arise without them," Aristotle writes. (p. 57)

The magnanimous person is concerned with honors, Aristotle writes, but only the proper honors. Proper honors are of the correct proportion and from the proper people. Small honors that are not worthy of his achievements do not please him, nor do honors from unworthy people, yet he is not overly pleased by the proper honors he does receive. He is also moderate in his appreciation of the riches and good fortune that often come with the virtue. He is right to consider himself superior to others, but he does not try to impress others with his superiority. Neither does he pretend that he is not superior, however. He is frank and truthful, and, Aristotle adds, usually moves slowly and speaks in a deep, calm voice. Vain and timid people, like vulgar and stingy people, cannot be blamed harshly for their conditions, Aristotle writes, for they are acting based on what they think they are worthy of, they are simply in error in their judgment of their own worth.

The next virtue Aristotle addresses concerns anger. This discussion presents a slight problem, he explains, or there are not common words to describe the mean, excess and deficiency of the virtue. He chooses to call the mean "mildness," which is closer to the deficiency of anger than the excess, which he calls irascibility. There is no name for the deficiency of anger, Aristotle claims, but describes the person who does not get angry when he rightly should as looking foolish. He seems to have no sensibility.

Irascible people are quick to anger, and get angry for the wrong reasons at the wrong people. There are many kinds of irascible people, Aristotle explains, for there are many different kinds of anger. This also makes it difficult to define a mean, he writes, because we often praise someone who does not get overly angry when it appears they have the right to. If a person is only a little to either side of the mean of mildness, he cannot be judged too badly, Aristotle claims.

Friendliness is the next virtue that Aristotle enumerates. Overly friendly people are fawning and always wishing to please. Those deficient in friendliness will always oppose others and are called "cantankerous." Overly friendly people who have a motive of gaining from their friendliness are called flatterers. Those who are overly friendly for no good reason are simply ingratiating. There is no name for the mean of friendliness, Aristotle writes, but its aim is to treat all people properly according to their stature and circumstances. Friendliness is similar to anger in that the extremes seem to abut one another with no easily defined mean. This implies that Aristotle may think that slight deviations toward one extreme or the other are not too bad.

The next virtue Aristotle describes he calls truthfulness, by which he means how a person acts and speaks about himself in particular. The excess of truthfulness is boasting, and the deficiency self-deprecation. The person who is properly between these two extremes is called straightforward.

A person may be boastful or self-deprecating in order to gain something or not, Aristotle explains. Whether they do either with an ulterior motive depends on their character. A person with the proper character will love truth and will express it in the proper way, even when there is nothing at stake.

There are different kinds of boastful people. Those who claim to have more than they do without having a reason are foolish and have a flawed character, Aristotle writes. Those who boast with an ulterior motive may do so to increase their reputation or to increase their wealth. Those who do it for money are worse than those who seek to better their reputation, he claims. Boastful people are all responsible for their state, he adds, since boastfulness arises from a person's character, and as Aristotle asserts earlier, each person is responsible for his character. Self-deprecating people are often thought of as sophisticated, Aristotle adds. Being overly self-deprecating in an intentional way can also be a form of boasting, he explains, as the Spartans do by wearing overly simple clothing.

Aristotle next turns to the virtue of wit, by which he means the action of amusing others. Some people will do or say anything for a laugh, he explains. These people are buffoons. Others never say anything funny and object when others do. These people are called "boorish and stiff." (p. 65) Those who are properly between these two extremes are called quick-witted or witty. Witty people will make jokes that are appropriate for the listeners and the circumstances. Aristotle admits that the standard of what is appropriate differs from group to group, and even changes over time. He points out that older plays display a different kind of wit than current ones.

Aristotle groups these three virtues concerning anger, friendliness and wit together as all being virtues concerned with how people interact with one another. He adds at the end of this section that he does not consider shame to be a virtue, although it may appear to be. Shame is more closely related to feelings, he claims, and since virtues are states, not feelings, same is not among the virtues. He also claims that continence is not a virtue, and promises to examine this in more detail later in the work.

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