Aristotle’s Nichomachean ethics is largely concerned with achieving the highest good. To achieve the highest good, which we call happiness, he argues that we need virtue. In this paper, I will examine what virtue consists in, and within that section explore how virtue is related to reason. After that, I will discuss Aristotle’s ideas about how to achieve virtue. Finally, I will present a criticism of Aristotle’s view on habituation and explain why I find it to be unreasonable.
Aristotle begins his explanation of virtue by stating that we are searching virtue of the soul, not of the body, since happiness (which is what we are seeking) is an activity of the soul. He then says that there are two divisible parts of the soul, the part with reason and the non-rational part (1102a-30). Within the non-rational part lies two more parts: a plantlike, and a more human part. The plant-like part is concerned with things like nutrition and growth, and is not at all governed by reason. The more human part, however, which is concerned with appetites and simple desires, listens to and obeys reason.
Since Aristotle closely ties reason with virtue, he decided to focus mainly on this, more human, part. Aristotle finds it necessary to divide this more human part into another two parts, one, which consists of reason in itself, and the other which listens to reason (1103a-2). It is these two new parts that Aristotle associates with virtue. Aristotle associates the part of the soul with reason (i. e. wisdom, comprehension and prudence) with what he calls “virtue of thought” and the other non-rational part of the soul (I. e. generosity and temperance) with what he calls virtue of character (1103a-8).
Although Aristotle states that we need both virtue of character and virtue of thought to achieve full virtue, we will first examine what virtue of character is. Aristotle reasons that since there are three conditions arising in the soul – feelings, capacities and states – virtue must be one of these things (1105b-20). Virtue, he says, cannot be a feeling because while a person may have feelings such as anger or joy – unless the feelings are directed at the right things, toward the right people, for the right end, at the right times, they are not considered properly virtuous (1106b, 22).
Also, whether we are called excellent or base, is determined by whether or not we have virtue or vices not whether or not we have feelings (1105a-1). Because Aristotle implies that virtue is praiseworthy, virtue cannot be a feeling because we are neither praised nor blamed for feelings but instead praised or blamed for having feelings in a particular manner (1106a-2). Secondly, virtue cannot be a capacity because – while I may have a capacity to do something -it is useless unless I actually do something with it, an idea Aristotle captures in the phrase “Olympic prizes are not for the finest and strongest, but for the contestants” (1099a-3).
In other words, we are neither praised nor blamed for our capabilities but rather what we do or don’t do with them (1106a-5). If virtue is neither a feeling nor a capacity, there is only one other possibility: virtue must be a state (11061-15). Aristotle claims that virtue consists in a steady and stable state of having the right feeling, the right desire, and the right motive at the right time. Thus while feelings and capacities are integral to being a virtuous person, because they are unstable and unfocused, first and foremost, virtue consists of a steady and stable state that direct feeling and capacity.
The other necessary component of full virtue is virtue of thought. Because virtue of thought involves reason, it is in some ways a precondition of virtue of character because virtue of character needs reason in order to be able to make decisions (1139a-23). We have already divided the soul into two main parts: a part that is non-rational and a part that contains reason. Aristotle says that the part that contains reason can be subdivided once again into the scientific part, and the rationally calculating part. It is within the rationally calculating part that virtue of thought is found.
Two key parts of virtue of thought, action and truth are controlled by three capacities in the soul – sense perception, understanding and desire (1139a). Aristotle says that sense perception is not the main part of any action, because non-human animals have perception but do not share in our ability for deliberate action (1139a-20). Decision however, is a deliberative desire and therefore if the decision is a good one, the desire must be correct. Therefore, if reason makes us think something is true, we grow a desire to deliberate about how to achieve this.
For example, if through reason I realize that I must eat apples to be healthy, I will grow a desire to figure what actions will be necessary for me to acquire and eat an apple. From this, we can then say that there is thought and truth involved in actions, because the function of what thinks about action is truth agreeing with correct desire (1139a-25). Because the principle of an action (the source of its motion) is a truth agreeing with a desire for a goal-directed reason, we can therefore simplify this and call it a goal-directed thought.