Please note that I have switched to the Oxford World Classic version of Aristotle’s Eudemian Ethics for ease of reference and my preference for a paper copy. This version is translated by Anthony Kenny.
Aristotle continues his enquiry into ethics by referring to the Moral Virtues. As we saw in Book 2, Aristotle developed his concept of the relative mean in virtue by contrasting excess with deficiency to define the middle and best state – the relative mean. Book 3 provides a definitive argument of these virtues. We shall let Aristotle himself lead us into our review, “In general terms it has been stated that the virtues are the middle states, and that these virtues themselves and their opposing vices are states that find expression in choice. We have listed them; let us now take them in turn and discuss them one by one. First, let us speak about courage.”
Aristotle then proceeds to define the following virtues in detail;
• Temperance and Intemperance
• Gentleness and Cruelty
• Other Good and Bad Qualities of Character
So let us continue.
Aristotle gives an account of what courage is and then goes on to list the five different types. The aim of this particular enquiry is to determine which particular type of courage is taken for the sake of some end, for if we remember from Book 1, “Everybody able to live according to his own purposive choice should set before him some object for noble living to aim at – either honour or else glory or wealth or culture – on which he will keep his eyes fixed in all his conduct.”
Firstly, Aristotle explains why he has chosen courage as the relative mean. He gives cowardice as the deficiency of courage and foolhardiness as the excess of courage, “It is evident, therefore, that people who are thus characterised will similarly be contrasted with each other, that is to say the coward (who is so called from being more afraid than is right, and less daring than is right) and the foolhardy (who is so called as the kind of person who is less afraid than is right, and more daring than is right). So that since courage is the best state of character in relation to feelings of fear and daring, and people should neither be like the foolhardy nor like cowards it is evident that the middle condition between foolhardiness and cowardice is courage, for that is what is the best state.” This ‘more afraid than is right’, and its contrary, ‘more daring than is right’ references some condition that has yet to be defined. That is, ‘than is right’. What is right? To Aristotle it is reason and the aim to which one acts. For example, “There remains this problem. To a courageous man is there nothing that is frightening? Is he incapable of fear? Surely there is nothing to prevent him from feeling fear in the manner we have described. For courage is a way of following reason, and reason tells us to choose what is noble. For this reason a person who endures what is frightening, but not for that reason, is either mad or foolhardy; only the person who does so for the sake of what is noble counts as courageous. The coward fears what he ought not to fear, the foolhardy dares where he ought not to dare; the courageous man does both as he ought to, and thus he is a mean, for he is daring and fearful exactly as reason commands. But reason does not command the endurance of painful and life-threatening things unless it is noble to do so. The foolhardy man, then, dares even when reason tells him not to; the coward does not dare even when reason tells him to. It is the courageous man who dares only when reason tells him to.” It is apparent to Aristotle that virtue, reason and nobility are all intertwined. Reason relates to some noble goal, whether that be honour, glory, wealth or culture. The relative mean in virtue is a rational choice which helps accomplish that aim. Thus any action which jeopardises that goal, be it cowardice or foolhardiness, is a vice.
Aristotle now goes on to list five types of courage which are;
• Civic Courage
• Military Courage
• Expression of Hope – Drunkenness
• Irrational Passion
The exact wording reads, “There are five kinds of courage, so called because they resemble courage in being endurance of the same dangers; but the endurance is for different reasons in the different cases. One is civic courage, which is based upon a sense of shame; another is military courage, based upon experience and on knowledge – not knowledge of the dangers (as Socrates said), but rather of ways of coping with them. The third rests on inexperience or ignorance; it makes madmen ready to face anything, and makes children handle snakes. Another kind is an expression of hope, which makes people face dangers if they have had a number of lucky escapes, or if they are drunk – for wine is a great purveyor of hope. Another kind arises from irrational passion: love or rage, for instance.” I have no criticism of this list. Yet Aristotle himself is not satisfied that any of these forms of courage count as the relative mean in virtue because they do not pertain to some noble end. Rather Aristotle rejects all of the above as forms of true courage as they hold some obligation other than deliberative choice for the sake of some end. Consider the following passage, “But true courage is something different from this, and from all the others, even though it resembles them, as does the courage of wild beasts which rush in rage to meet the blow. A man should stand his ground not because he fears disgrace, or is enraged, nor because he does not think he will die, or because he has effective protection, for in that case he will not think there is anything to be afraid of. But since every virtue implies choice (in the manner earlier explained: it makes a man choose everything for the sake of some end, and the end is what is noble), it is clear that courage being a particular virtue will make a man endure what is frightening for the sake of some end. Instead of making him do it in error, it will make him judge rightly, and instead of doing it for the sake of pleasure, he will do it because it is noble.” Thus, our definition of courage reads, ‘the relative mean in virtue between an excess; foolhardiness, and deficiency; cowardice, in relation toward some noble end’. I believe this statement satisfies all other enquiries into the various best states in virtue so that a generic version would read, ‘Good is the relative mean in virtue between both excess and deficiency in relation toward some noble end’. Let us continue to see if we are correct.
Temperance and Intemperance
Aristotle now reviews temperance and intemperance. From his table in Book 2, Aristotle lists temperance as the relative mean in virtue with excess called intemperance and the deficiency called insensitivity. Aristotle’s argument here relates to the indulgence of the senses and the pleasure derived from sensation. Consider, “Temperance and intemperance have to do with the two senses that alone have objects that are felt by, and give pleasure and pain to, animals other than ourselves, namely, taste and touch. With regard to the pleasures of the other senses – harmony and beauty, for instance – they seem to be pretty much totally insensitive.” To elaborate further an excess of pleasure derived from taste would lead to gluttony, whilst deriving no pleasure from consensual sex would be deemed insensitive. In conclusion, Aristotle states, “So if temperance is the best state in respect of the intemperate man’s sphere of activity, the mean state with regard to the aforesaid pleasures of the senses will be temperance, a mean between intemperance and insensitivity.” It appears to me that Aristotle is advocating restraint in relation to excessive pleasure-seeking activities which lead to detrimental effects upon the physical and mental state of being rather than deriding the case of insensitivity, but regardless it is a relative mean in virtue.
Gentleness and Cruelty
Next on Aristotle’s list is the relative mean of gentleness which les in between an excess, called cruelty, and a deficiency, called servility. Form Aristotle himself, “In our chart we made a contrast between irascibility, cruelty and savagery (all such being forms of the same disposition) and the characteristics of the servile and the milksop. Such are the kind of names we call those who are not moved to rage when they ought to be, but accept insults cheerfully and are humble in the face of contempt.” I would just like to draw the reader’s attention to that last sentence which conflicts with another major moral code – Christianity. Quoting the New Testament, Matthew 5:38-40, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well.” It is clear that Aristotle would not make a very good Christian. Aristotle arrives at gentleness as the relative mean in virtue through the following statement, “And since there is here, as we said in other cases, excess and defect (for the cruel man is the one who feels anger too quickly, too violently, too long, at the wrong time, and with the wrong people, and with too many people, while the servile man is just the contrary), it is clear that there is also some character at the midpoint of this scale. Since, then, both these states of character are wrong, it is clear that the midway between them is correct: such that a man gets angry neither too soon nor too late, and he does not get angry with the wrong people or fail to get angry with the people who deserve it. So since the best state of character in respect to these emotions is gentleness, gentleness would be a mean, and a gentle person would be in the middle between a cruel person and a servile person.”
Aristotle’s definition of the term ‘liberality’ is as follows, “Liberality is the mean in regard to the getting and spending of wealth.” Aristotle’s inquiry into the nature of liberality concerns the feelings of the one who acquires and utilises wealth. Consider, “We speak in two different senses of wealth and its acquisition, for there are two ways of using a piece of property, such as a shoe or a cloak: one is its proper use, and the other is its coincidental use.” He continues, “Now, a miser is someone who dotes on money, and for him money becomes a matter of possession rather than coincidental use. An illiberal man may be prodigal with respect to the coincidental mode of making money, since what he wants to maximise is the natural pursuit of wealth. The prodigal man goes short of necessities, but the liberal man gives away his surplus.” What really concerns Aristotle is the reckless spending of money and its converse which is the fixation on acquiring never-ending amounts with a view to fraud as a means of acquisition. I find this relative mean to be vague because Aristotle has elsewhere stated that the pursuit of wealth is considered to be one of the noble aims hence his caveat; “If his illiberality amounts to injustice then he is a fraud and a cheat.” Rather than being an outright vice it is conditioned with regard to a further act. Regardless, the principle behind this particular relative mean is to ensure a man is neither reckless in his spending; prodigal, or ruthless in his acquisition; illiberal, and that he attains the middle and best state which is to spend only his surplus; liberality.
I find Aristotle’s views on pride to be particularly interesting because whilst it establishes a relative mean between vanity and diffidence it also highlights some of the foundations underlying his entire philosophy on ethics. Aristotle even gives prominence to this view by listing the necessities of pride before conducting his review into the relative mean. Consider, “We speak of the proud man, in accordance with the derivation of the corresponding Greek adjective, as having a certain greatness of soul and faculty, and so he seems like the friendly man and the magnificent man. Pride does indeed seem to accompany all of the virtues.” Furthermore, “Each particular virtue distinguishes correctly between the greater and the lesser in its own area, following the prescription that a wise man and his virtue would give. Thus, all the virtues go with this virtue, or it goes with them all.” And finally, “… so that there is no virtue without greatness. Each virtue, then, as we have said, makes someone a proud person in respect of those matters that fall within its sphere.” Clearly it is essential to Aristotle’s virtue-bound ethics that the individual is a proud person otherwise he lacks both the will and the ability to determine what greatness is and how to distinguish between greater and lesser acts in relation to the relative mean. Without these clear distinctions he has no knowledge of how to pursue and exercise greatness.
Now let us examine pride as the relative mean in virtue. As mentioned, Aristotle holds pride to be the relative mean between diffidence and vanity. Consider, “Of the contraries as shown in our diagram, claiming great things when one does not deserve them is vanity (for it is precisely the people who think they are worthy of great things when they are not whom we call vain), while deserving great things while not claiming them is diffidence (for if a man in possession of deserving qualities does not think himself worthy of anything great, he is diffident). Hence it follows that pride is the mean between vanity and diffidence.” I have no refutation to offer regarding these points.
Other good and bad qualities of character
Aristotle continues to list other virtues such as magnificence and righteous indignation as relative means and gives reasons for their classifications. It is not necessary for us to investigate these further as the pattern is consistent with that listed above. Described in this final section is the generic rule, “The mean is more opposed to the extremes than the extremes are to each other, because it does not occur in combination with either of them, whereas the extremes often occur together.” An example given to clarify the point reads, “Sometimes the very same people are foolhardy cowards, or are prodigal in some things and illiberal in others, and in general their badness gets out of bounds.”
Critique on Book 3
Aristotle’s enquiry into the relative mean in virtue is both exhaustive and transparent. It is clear that he aims to establish that goodness lies in choosing a noble end utilising the relative mean in virtue to attain that end. My interest lies in the contrast between Aristotle’s virtues and the vices laid out in other ethical codes, in this particular case it is Christianity. It is clear that Aristotle holds pride to be virtuous whereas in the Old Testament, Proverbs 11:12, it states, “When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with the humble is wisdom.” And in the New Testament, Luke 14:11, “For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” The whole purpose of this study is to contrast the different ethical codes and discover which shall transcend any obligation to the current age. In regards to this I side with Aristotle’s view that pride is a virtue for it is an honest acknowledgement of one’s talents whereas humility seeks further acclaim through debasing one’s merit so that it avoids intimidating any prospective audience.