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Aristotle's Painful Path to Virtue

From: Journal of the History of Philosophy
Volume 40, Number 2, April 2002
pp. 141-162 | 10.1353/hph.2002.0026

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Journal of the History of Philosophy 40.2 (2002) 141-162

[P]unishment . . . is a kind of cure . . . (1104b17).
We think young people should be prone to shame . . . (1128b16-17).

1. Two Questions

FOR ARISTOTLE, THE GOAL OF MORAL development is, of course, to become virtuous. Aristotle provides a partial description of the virtuous person in the following familiar passage. The virtuous person performing virtuous acts,

must have knowledge, secondly he must choose the acts, and choose them for their own sakes, and thirdly his actions must proceed from a firm and unchangeable character. (1105a31-33)

By my count, this passage lists five components of virtue. Presumably, the virtuous agent's knowledge consists in true beliefs concerning which acts are virtuous plus a correct account of why they are virtuous. Virtue thus includes both (1) the ability to identify which acts are virtuous in a given situation and (2) an understanding of why they are virtuous. Choice is deliberate desire, so choosing virtuous acts is a combination of determining and desiring virtuous acts. People want to carry out virtuous acts for various reasons. For example, some choose virtuous acts merely because they are fashionable or instrumentally valuable. But Aristotle specifies that the virtuous person (3) desires virtuous acts for their own sake. Finally, since a state of character includes dispositions to act and feel in certain ways, "a firm virtuous character" includes not only (4) dispositions of virtuous action, but also (5) dispositions of virtuous passion. The virtuous person reliably acts and feels right.

Since, "We are inquiring not in order to know what virtue is but in order to become good" (1103b27-28), it seems natural to ask how these five components of virtue are acquired. Aristotle's oft-repeated prescription for becoming virtuous is, "We become just by performing just acts, and temperate by performing temperate acts" (1105a18-19). Now virtuous action is different in different situations, so habitually acting virtuously does not mean repeatedly doing the same thing, but rather it means repeatedly doing the right thing. Nevertheless, it is easy enough to see how performing virtuous acts can provide dispositions of virtuous action. Aristotle explains elsewhere that teaching rather than habituation provides the explanation of why certain acts are virtuous (1095b2-13; see below). Aristotle suggests that dispositions of virtuous passion are inculcated through music (Politics1340a12-b13). But the acquisition of the two remaining components of virtue seems mysterious. How do we acquire the ability to identify virtuous acts? How do we come to desire virtuous acts for their own sake?

2. Burnyeat's Answers:
Moral Progress Through Pleasure

In a classic article entitled "Aristotle on Learning to be Good," Myles Burnyeat presents answers to these two questions. He says that according to Aristotle,

[W]e first learn (come to see) what is noble and just not by experience of or induction from a series of instances, nor by intuition (intellectual or perceptual), but by learning to do noble and just things, by being habituated to noble and just conduct . . . You need a good upbringing not simply in order that you may have someone around to tell you what is noble and just -- you do need that . . . Aristotle discusses whether the job is best done by one's father or by community arrangements -- but you need also to be guided in your conduct so that by doing the things you are told are noble and just you will discover that what you have been told is true . . . in the sense of having made the judgment your own, second nature to you.

So according to Burnyeat, Aristotle thinks that guided habituation enables you acquire the ability to judge for yourself which acts are virtuous. To begin with, you need "someone around to tell you what is noble and just." You must be told by someone that this act in this context is virtuous; that act is vicious; and so on. But you do not become a good judge of action simply by generalizing from these virtue judgments. Instead, "doing the things you are told are noble and just," enables you to "make the judgment your own, second nature to you." That is, habitual virtuous action causes...



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