Aristotle and Plato on Virtue

The typical denizen of modernity sees in the notion of virtue a curious and antiquated notion that is, at best, a remnant of a prudish and stringent moral absolutism. Instead of virtues—perhaps most succinctly defined as personal characteristics that are good everywhere always for all—contemporary popular thought speaks of values— that is, personally-defined preferences that are almost certain to differ from one individual to another. The idea of virtue, however, plays a central role in the philosophies of both Plato and Aristotle, among other ancient and premodern philosophers. For both philosophers, virtue is essential both to the individual in his formation and in the attainment of his happiness as well as to the functioning of people collectively in societies. Given the significance of these philosophers in the development of Western thought, it is undoubtedly worthwhile to consider their thought on virtue and whether it has a place in the modern world.

First, it is necessary to define the term virtue, a term of Latin origins most frequently used to translate the Greek term ἀρετή (arete). The Greek term, however, does not, in its origins, possess the moral connotations that immediately come to one’s mind in response to the English word “virtue.” Rather, arete refers to any excellence in anything whatsoever. In The Republic, Plato, for example, is able to refer to “the virtue of dogs . . . [and] horses” nearly in the same breath as he refers to “justice” as “human virtue.” Similarly, in The Apology, Socrates refers to “the virtue of a judge” as the ability to determine whether things “are just or not” and the virtue “of an orator” as the ability “to speak the truth.” Of course, the universal moral virtues of prudence and honesty can easily be extrapolated from these virtues specific to certain vocations, but each remains singly the excellence pertinent to its domain.

Defining virtue as the excellence proper to human nature, then, Plato sees justice as its realization and end. Significantly, Plato applies this equation of virtue with justice to both individuals and societies. The premise of The Republic as a whole, after all, is Socrates’s notion that “perhaps there would be more justice in the bigger and it would be easier to observe closely” so that it is profitable in a discussion of the nature of justice to “first . . . investigate what justice is like in cities” and “then . . . consider it in individuals, considering the likeness of the bigger in the idea of the littler.” The individual and his society are, then, alike in that their excellence, or virtue, must tend toward justice. A just society must, in fact, according to Plato, consist of virtuous individuals.

Why it should be so that justice and virtue are necessary to individuals and societies leads to the axioms inherent in Plato’s ethics. Ultimately, Plato begins with the basic assumption that all humans have a concern for their own self-interest and a desire for happiness. Ironically, it is one of Socrates’s interlocutors, Thrasymachus, who introduces this assumption into the discussion in The Republic. Thrasymachus is the first to use the word εὐδαιμονία (eudaimonia), a Greek word referring to a state of happiness or well-being. Perhaps more ironically, Thrasymachus introduces this key term in the midst of his defense of an ethic of “might makes right,” in which he claims “those who are ruled do what is advantageous for him who is stronger, and they make him whom they serve happy but themselves not at all.” It is only after this point—beginning with his responses to Thrasymachus but continuing throughout the rest of the book—that Socrates takes up the language of happiness. It can perhaps be inferred from this that Plato takes up and builds upon this concern as a foundation because it is one that is so basic as to be common both to those of his own position and, simultaneously, to those quite different modes of thought. It is the common basis upon which he is able to build his particular philosophical vision.

While Aristotle departs from or builds upon Plato in a number of ways, the student remains committed to his teacher’s assertion of an inherent link between virtue and happiness. Like Plato, Aristotle too holds happiness to be the end toward which human activity naturally aims and that virtue is the means by which this end is achieved. “None of the human works is anything so secure as what pertains to the activities that accord with virtue,” he writes in the Nicomachean Ethics. Indeed, “those who are blessed live out their lives engaged . . . in these activities.” Such an individual, he continues, “will be such [that is, a happy person] throughout his life.” Virtue, then, is, according to Aristotle, the means to human happiness for the individual.

Aristotle’s thought also resembles that of Plato in his insistence on a link between virtue and the well-functioning society as well. According to Aristotle, “the good of the individual by himself is certainly desirable enough, but that of a nation and of cities is nobler and more divine.” It is the case, therefore, he goes on, that his inquiry into the best sort of life is in fact “a sort of political inquiry.” One aspect of Aristotle’s attempts to define virtue, in fact, is the need for laws that will help “to make the citizens good” and thereby form a just society. Virtue, then, is a social as much as it is a personal necessity according to the thought of Aristotle. And, just as it is productive of happiness for the person, it is productive of the well-functioning society.

If, as Aristotle and Plato hold, virtue is the means by which to attain personal happiness and social harmony, it is undoubtedly worth considering whether overlooking this link between virtue and well-being is a significant factor contributing to our contemporary troubles. The link between the abandonment of the belief in the concept of a universal good in human behavior and the lack of fulfillment and social cohesion among denizens of modernity may indeed be a causative one. If Plato and Aristotle are correct in their assessments, we may in fact have created unhappiness for ourselves.

The problem of modernity has been variously identified as the alienation of the working class, according to Marxist philosophy, to, in Freudian thought, the development of neuroses and other mental illnesses as a result of the failure to adequately sublimate primitive instinct to the demands of civilization. And the solutions proposed have been as various, including the need for a reformation of the economic and social order to the need to explore and repair the unconscious of the individual. Perhaps, however, it is worthwhile for moderns to consider that the apparent ethos of the modern world—including especially the relativity of the modern world and the notion of radical individualist self-determination—are the primary sources of modern malaise. And it may be necessary to look to the thought of earlier periods for the wisdom it can impart to guide us toward a happier, more complete life both singly and collectively.

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