The essay title's question is quite ambiguous as
to its intended focus of interest. On the one hand, it can be read as
inquiring about how Aristotle demonstrates that his concept of the "moral
virtues" constituted at least part of his concept of "excellence". But
Aristotle does not attempt to demonstrate this. Aristotle makes use of a
single Greek word (areté) that is translated into English as both "excellence"
and as "virtue". So that excellence includes the virtues as simply a
matter of synonymous translation.
On the other hand, the title question can
be read as inquiring about how Aristotle demonstrates that his concept of areté
includes the particular list of character traits that he considers to be the
moral virtues. But Aristotle does not attempt to demonstrate that his
concept of areté includes the moral virtues he identifies. He makes it
very clear that he is examining how his fellow Athenian citizens employ the
concept of "a good man". He takes it as given that his fellow citizens consider
the virtues an integral part of what it is to be "a good man". He does not
attempt to show that areté includes those character traits that he identifies.
The notion of virtue as excellence was
suggested by Socrates/Plato but refined and extended by Aristotle. Like
his predecessor(s), Aristotle held that it is the soul of the person that is
virtuous, and that it is virtuous when it attains "the good for man as such."
That is, when the virtuous man achieves a good which is not subordinate to any
other good; all other goods being subordinate to it. So what is the "good
for man as such"?
Aristotle observes that we all agree that it is
"eudaimonia." Note that Aristotle's term "eudaimonia", which has usually
been translated as "happiness," means much more than what we normally associate
with the English word. In Aristotle's lexicon, eudaimonia means "living
well and faring well."(NE 1.4) This is quite different from the feeling of
well-being that we think of as constituting happiness. More recent
translations of Aristotle have used the phrase "human flourishing" instead
because "happiness" is a state of mind, and Aristotle is quite clear that
eudaimonia is to be understood as an activity.
Now, Aristotle does not
attempt to "show" (argue, reason, or provide support for a premise) that
excellence includes moral virtue. Rather he stipulates that the moral
virtues are those excellences of the activities of the soul that are in
accordance with the telos (purpose, function) of Man (qua Man) within the polis.
As indicated above, the very Greek word (areté) that is normally translated into
English as "virtue" can also be translated as "excellence". Hence the
title question can be understood as inquiring whether Aristotle shows that
excellence includes moral excellence.
But again, the answer to this question
is a matter of stipulation. Aristotle distinguishes two kinds of virtue
(NE 1.13): those that pertain to the part of the soul that engages in reasoning
(virtues of mind or intellect), and those that pertain to the part of the soul
that cannot itself reason but is nonetheless capable of following reason
(ethical virtues, virtues of character). Hence Aristotle is stipulating and not
showing that excellence includes moral virtue.
In the text of the Nicomachean Ethics, just preceding the quote in the essay title, Aristotle lays out the reasoning for which the title quote is the conclusion. All human activity is teleological -- all activity is in pursuit of some goal.
"Every art and
every inquiry, and similarly every action and pursuit, is thought to aim at some
good; and for this reason the good has rightly been declared to be that at which
all things aim." (NE 1.1)
There is a hierarchy of these goods at which
various activities aim. Lesser goods are instrumental in the pursuit of
(or perhaps partially constitutive of) greater goods.
"But where such
arts fall under a single capacity . . . in all of these the ends of the master
arts are to be preferred to all the subordinate ends; for it is for the sake of
the former that the latter are pursued." (NE 1.1)
The top of this
hierarchy will be the final or highest goal of human activities -- something
which is pursued for its own sake, and not for the sake of any other goal.
"Since there are evidently more than one end, and we choose some of these .
. . for the sake of something else, clearly not all ends are final ends; but the
chief good is evidently something final. Therefore, if there is only one final
end, this will be what we are seeking, and if there are more than one, the most
final of these will be what we are seeking. Now we call that which is in itself
worthy of pursuit more final than that which is worthy of pursuit for the sake
of something else, and that which is never desirable for the sake of something
else more final than the things that are desirable both in themselves and for
the sake of that other thing, and therefore we call final without qualification
that which is always desirable in itself and never for the sake of something
else." (NE 1.7)
This final goal Aristotle calls eudaimonia. Eudaimonia
is the one goal that we pursue for itself alone, and not as a means
(instrumental or constitutive) of any other end.
"Now such a thing [i.e the
highest good] eudaimonia, above all else, is held to be; for this we choose
always for itself and never for the sake of something else, but honour,
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 eudaimonia, judging that by means of them we shall be
happy. Eudaimonia, on the other hand, no one chooses for the sake of these,
nor, in general, for anything other than itself." (NE 1.7)
proceeds to examine just what this eudaimonia must be if it is the "highest
good". And he approaches this analysis from the starting point of how his
fellow Athenian citizens employ the concept "good" in normal conversation.
"For just as for a flute-player, a sculptor, or an artist, and, in general,
for all things that have a function or activity, the 'good' and the 'well' is
thought to reside in the function, so would it seem to be for man, if he has a
function." (NE 1.7)
In sharp contrast with the modern understanding of the
"ethical good", Aristotle is setting up a clearly functional concept. To
be properly called a "good flute-player" one must fulfill with excellence the
function of a flute-player. And by analogy, Aristotle concludes that to be
properly called a "good man" one must fulfill with excellence the function of a
man (if he has one). The two key observations to note here are: (i) the
word that Aristotle actually employs in this passage is "areté"; and (ii) he is
taking his cue from the standard linguistic practice of his community.
In its ancient Greek usage, the concept of "areté" was closely linked with the
notion of the fulfillment of purpose or function: the act of performing up to
one's full potential. Hence a flute player who fulfilled his function, who
lived up to his full potential as a flute-player would, in common linguistic
practice, be labelled "areté". Likewise, an axe that performed up to its
full potential would also be labelled "areté". Aristotle is arguing that
analogously a man who fulfills his function (if he has one), who lives and
performs up to his full potential as a man, should also properly be labelled
Aristotle next explores what might be the proper function ("ergon")
of man. For various reasons we need not go into at this point, he
concludes that the proper function of man is "life of the rational element".
(In order to address the specific question of the essay title, we need not
explore here the plausibility of Aristotle's choice of man's proper function.)
"Now if the function of man is an activity of soul which follows or implies
a rational principle, and if we say 'a so-and-so' and 'a good so-and-so' have a
function which is the same in kind, . . . eminence in respect of goodness being
added to the name of the function . . . : if this is the case, and we state the
function of man to be a certain kind of life, and this to be an activity or
actions of the soul implying a rational principle, and the function of a good
man to be the good and noble performance of these, and if any action is well
performed when it is performed in accordance with the appropriate excellence: if
this is the case, human good turns out to be activity of soul in accordance with
virtue, and if there are more than one virtue, in accordance with the best and
most complete." (NE 1.7)
Notice particularly how Aristotle sets up his
reasoning in this last quote:
IF the ergon (proper function) of man is an
activity of soul which follows or implies
a rational principle;
IF standard linguistic practice is that eminence in respect of areté (excellence / virtue)
is added to the name of the ergon;
IF any action is well performed when it is performed in accordance with the standards
of areté appropriate to the particular ergon;
THEN human good turns out to be activity of soul in accordance with the appropriate
standards of "goodness", "excellence", or "virtue".
In other words, on one
possible reading, the question that is the focus of the essay title is based on
a misunderstanding of the English translations of Aristotle. In the
ancient Greek in which Aristotle wrote, "excellence" just is "virtue". And
the moral virtues are those excellences that are excellences of soul simply as a
consequence of the then common usages of those words.
Aristotle's analysis is based on an examination of how his
fellow Athenian speakers of Greek, people with whom he is familiar, actually
employ the concept of a "good man". He is not attempting to provide an a
priori analysis, or an ex cathedra declaration of how we ought to employ the
label of a "good man". Hence his starting point is an examination of how
his fellow Greek citizens actually do, in fact, employ the label. So it is
quite understandable that he would conclude in his concept of the appropriate
standards of "goodness", "excellence", or "virtue" those elements of character
that would be admired, respected, and commended by the cognoscenti of his local
polis. Hence, those character traits that Aristotle labelled "moral virtues"
are character traits that people living in a particular community actually did
hold in high regard as positively contributing to the welfare of that community.
"We do not mean that which is sufficient for a man by himself, for one who
lives a solitary life, but also for parents, children, wife, and in general for
his friends and fellow citizens, since man is born for citizenship." (NE 1.7)
For Aristotle, man derives his sense of identity, his purpose, from his role
as part of an existing community -- including friends, customs, institutions, and
laws. Aristotle does not conceive of the individual as prior to or
independent of the community. Thus, moral virtues -- the excellences of
soul we are seeking -- are essentially social and political in nature. For
Aristotle, his study of ethics starts with the actual moral judgments of his
community, before he can approach the formulation of general principles
Aristotle does not explore, and hence offers no reply to, the many challenges
that philosophers since his time have offered to the effect that "human good" is
not to be so analyzed. Similarly, Aristotle does not explore, and hence
offers no rebuttal to, the many challenges raised by philosophers since his time
of, the possibility that man (qua man) has other "proper functions" than the one
that Aristotle elects as his foundation.
Hence, given his purpose and
starting point, it is quite understandable that for Aristotle, it is not a
matter of showing that the standards of excellence by which we judge that a man
is a "good man" include the moral virtues, or that the moral virtues include
those socially valued character traits he does in fact pick out. For
Aristotle, the socially esteemed character traits just are those standards of
excellence that apply when his fellow Athenian speakers of Greek identify a man
Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics, Translated and introduced by David Ross,
revised by J.L. Ackrill and J.O. Urmson; Oxford University Press, Oxford,
England. 1980. ISBN 0-19-283407-x
Cooper, John M., Reason and Human
Good in Aristotle, Hackett Publishing Company, Indianapolis, Indiana, 1986. ISBN
Hughes, Gerard J., Routledge Philosophy Guidebook to Aristotle
on Ethics, Routledge (The Taylor & Frances Group), New York, New York, 2001.
Kraut, Richard, "Aristotle's Ethics", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2009 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL=<http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2009/entries/aristotle-ethics/>.
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