It has been suggested that the roots of virtue or character ethics ultimately reach back to Plato and especially to Aristotle's discussion of moral character as proposed by G. E. M. Anscombe's essay, "Modern Moral Philosophy," originally published in 1958.1 Thus it was maintained that virtue or character ethics emphasized traditionally neglected topics, such as motives, education, training, temperance (phronesis), happiness, (eudaimonia), magnanimity, and especially the cardinal virtue of friendship as all deriving from certain dispositional qualities in the person, from a relatively constant state of character, from a stable personality.2
In terms of Plato, it is the early, aporetic, Socratic dialogues that are indicated as especially concerned with character. And that may be but clearly in these conversations Socrates concludes, as a negative revelation, that a condition for virtue (Virtue as Knowledge of the Good) requires the realization that one does not know what virtue is, that conceited ignorance (amathia) first must be recognized before proceeding positively toward the unchanging Form of Goodness. And just as certainly, although, in the Republic, Socrates does emphasize the relation of happiness to justice, nevertheless it is fairly obvious that for Plato the truly happy and just man is so only in so far as he is able to intellectually and intuitively grasp the eternal Form of the Good as his criterion. However, this is hardly an emphasis on character. Similarly, we can say that as far as Aristotle is concerned, despite the fact that he does focus on the dispositional attributes of a virtuous or happy [End Page 133] character (or life), nevertheless the Philosopher is very specific in stating that there is an absolutely right thing to do in each circumstance and it is grounded in the mean between two vices. The mean, for instance, between cowardice and rashness is courage. Thus, there is an absolute (albeit contextual) criterion for a boy, a girl, a man, a woman, an old man, an old woman, etc., an objective measure for each in various situations requiring courage. This standard, which is based in the immediate perception of pleasure or pain, which directly follows an act, may be developed by training; but certainly Aristotle has more to say about the mean and how to achieve it than he does about training, except for the brief statements that we become virtuous by doing virtuous acts and good by the practically wise choices we make. Thus, for Aristotle, it is possible to evaluate specific, particular acts by invoking the measure of the mean. Essentially for both Plato and Aristotle, the criteria "subsist" independently of the act, person or polis. Hence, both Plato and Aristotle remain predominantly rule-oriented.
By contrast, in Homerian ethics—as opposed to Platonic or Peripatetic guidelines—it is the whole person who is admirable, not the act; it is the "being" of Achilles, it is his "substance" that is praiseworthy and not whether or not he weeps for his departed companion. It is the entire man that expresses the standard of value. And just as obviously there are times and instances when an agent or an action misses the Aristotelian mark or the "mean" and yet we do not criticize the individual as either morally or psychologically deficient precisely because we consider instead the overall person, we take other factors into consideration, features deeply embedded in his or her personality, including how he or she handled the situation and not whether or not the individual measured up to some abstract, independent, theoretical standard. The noble or laudable hero or heroine does not concern himself or herself with dissecting and separating himself or heself from their actions, from their motives or emotions, as if the latter could stand apart from themselves. And thus it appears to be a mistake to think that the Homeric character would obsess about either the consistency, conformity, or applicability of a rule in regard to their actions and responses.
And here we might interject an interesting...