Before we get to Aristotle, it is worth pointing out how MacIntrye sees the movement from the virtues as they were understood by heroic social values of Homer to Athenian democratic values that give rise to Aristotle’s account. He cites the poet Sophocles’ play Philoctetes as representative of Greek culture reassessing the dominant narratives and their assumed meaning.
Philoctetes was a Greek warrior who possessed the bow and arrows of Herakles, a weapon incapable of missing its mark. Herakles gave it to Philoctetes for being the only person willing to light the funeral pyre the demigod built as he writhed in pain from a cursed shirt he could not remove. We’ll read about Herakles, who you may know as Hercules, later in the semester.
But on the voyage to Troy, Philoctetes suffers a snakebite on his foot. As the wound festers, it begins to smell, and it is clear to his companions that Philoctetes is polluted and has become a threat to everyone’s safety. MacIntyre has AWH Adkins to thank for differentiating between Homeric virtues as competitive, and Athenian virtues, which are cooperative. (After Virtue, 133 &139) For heroic social norms, the Greeks quarantining their friend by leaving him on the island of Lemnos may have been morally acceptable. But to Sophocles, several centuries later, they have abandoned him. To Homer and his hearers, Philoctetes has been treated as he should, even if by no fault of his own. But to Sophocles and his audience, the Greeks have violated the bonds of friendship and have acted profoundly unjustly.
In Sophocles’ play, Odysseus sends Achilles’ son Neoptolemus to acquire the bow, a young man who never knew his father. The pollution is not within the man wounded in action, but in the man he should have been able to trust as a “battle buddy.” Philoctetes receives them as xenoi, guests, which heightens the moral tension for Athenian audiences. Guilt originates with Odysseus, who persuades the celebrated recruit, whose name means “new war”;
I know, young man, it is not your natural bent
To say such things nor to contrive such mischief.
But the prize of victory is pleasant to win.
Bear up: another time we shall prove honest.
For one brief shameless portion of a day
Give me yourself, and then for all the rest
You may be called most scrupulous of men
Moral pollution passes from the weathered warrior to the fatherless “young man” when the latter becomes aware of the treachery and complies. The play is resolved, as is common, with the intercession of a god, in this case Herakles, who encourages Philoctetes to continue on with Neoptolemus to Troy. When he does, his foot is healed and he regains his lost honor by his performance on the battlefield. Homer relays none of this, and is only concerned with Achilles’ rage…
As for Neoptolemus, we shall see what kind of man becomes next week, through Virgil’s Aeneid. For now, let’s turn our attention to Aristotle.
Aristotle’s Moral Virtues
Aristotle studied under Plato in Athens, who in turn had studied under Socrates. He wrote in the late fourth century BCE, at least four centuries after Homer (if not more). Placing him in the classical Greek philosophical tradition, MacIntyre remarks, is “a very unAristotelian thing to do,” but acknowledges necessary irony of doing so. Aristotle thought his work would replace the errors of his predecessors, disclosing some of his own assumptions about history, ethics, and knowledge, but that’s beside the point.
It is true, however, that Aristotle felt a certain departure from his teachers, which some have read into his introduction to Book Two of his Nicomachean Ethics, on “Moral Goodness,” where he states;
since the branch of philosophy which we are at present engaged is not, like the others, theoretical in its aim – because we are studying not to know what goodness is, but how to become good [people], since otherwise it would be useless.” (Thomson, 33)
He is a kind of pragmatist, rooted in actual life but keeping in mind the importance of universals. MacIntyre sees him as having given himself “the task of giving an account of the good which is at once local and particular – located in… the polis – and yet also cosmic and universal.” (After Virtue, 148) A community properly understood, deserving of the name in a moral sense, for Aristotle, is one “whose shared aim is the realization of the human good.” (155)
Communities are supposed to enable a person to pursue and retrieve the greatest good, which is to be happy. Happiness is our telos, our function as well as our goal, and habituating the virtues is the embodiment of our purpose. “Human excellence” Aristotle writes, “will be the disposition that makes one a good [person] and causes [them] to perform their function well.” (Book II.vi, Thomson 40) Along deontology, a rules-based ethic, and utilitarianism, a consequences-based ethic, we might call virtue ethics “teleological,” for it asks ‘To what end are humans oriented?’ and ‘How may we accomplish our end?’ For many western philosophers, the answer to the What question is “happiness.”
For Aristotle, the answer to the How question is what he calls “the Doctrine of the Mean,” a noble balance between a vicious deficiency and a vicious excess. A virtue, then, is the mean, or average, between two vices. One way to remember it is the saying, “moderation in everything.”
Another way to remember it is with the image of a glass of water. Think of a person as the glass, who can habituate certain states of character. The average, or mean, is relative, there is no absolute determinant for what the exact right amount. If it helps, think of the liquid in the glass as spirits; your friends may tell you to have a drink or two, for a deficiency keeps you from having a good time (that’s what you’ll be told, at least). However, if you drink excessively, you’re not having a good time. You also might not have friends to tell you that, either…
His account of the virtues is peppered throughout the Nicomachean Ethics, but for time’s sake, we won’t get into the intellectual virtues. I’ve asked you all to focus in on the virtues of moral goodness, in books three and four.
Here’s a table I have adapted based on the text that outlines the moral virtues, with references to the Ethics. I’ve changed some of the specific wording to reflect a more dynamic English equivalent that undergraduates might be more familiar with;
I count eleven spheres of action and their moral virtues within the assigned reading;
- Courage – the noble mean of Bravery, or the fear of death
- Temperance– the noble mean of Pleasures
- Generosity – the noble mean of Giving money or material
- Magnificence – the noble mean of Spending on others, or taste
- Magnanimity – the noble mean of Possessing Honor
- Proper Ambition – the noble mean of Desiring Honor
- Patience – the noble mean of Temper or anger
- Friendliness – the noble mean of Amicability
- Truthfulness – the noble mean of representing one’s Reputation
- Wittiness – the noble mean of expressing Humor
- Modesty – the noble mean of Shame, or the fear of dishonor
Of the eleven in the assigned excerpt, nine are “states of character,” but two are not. The spheres of action concerning Bravery and Shame (1 & 11, in yellow) are more like feelings, of death and dishonor respectively. Aristotle calls them “bodily conditions” because of the somatic change it causes in people, the former to make men pale and the latter to make them blush. (Book IV.9, Ross translation)
Also, three are particularly “concerned with an interchange of words and deeds of some kind.” (Ross, sect.8) The three in green all revolve around intercourse, or conversation. Aristotle points out that two (Amicability and Humor) involve pleasantries, whereas the third (Reputation, number 9), is concerned with truth.
Some things worth our attention are also in the Greek transliteration I’ve used;
- One fun little thing is the deficiency for Pleasure, which I have labeled insensibility, as in not taking pleasure in sensory experiences. You can probably even sound out the Greek word, anaisthēsia, and infer another, equally valid, translation; numbness.
- Magnificence and miserliness might be rephrased ‘high taste’ and ‘low taste,’ and in fact many translations prefer the English “vulgarity” for the deficiency. Notice the Greek suffix the share, –prepiea, which I cannot define easily; the mean is megalo- (much of), while the deficiency if mikro– (little of).
- Below that, in the sphere of action I’ve called Possession of Honor, the deficiency and mean again share a greek suffix, –psūchia, from the root word psyche. To modern hearers, we think of mental health, but it is more comprehensive than that. Psyche is a person’s will, their soul. We see this reflected in the English suffix –animity, from the Latin anima, for soul. In the Vulgate, the Latin Bible translated by Jerome, it is the psyche that God breathes into Adam to make him a living creature after fashioning him from clay.
- The next below that, the entire word is the same for the mean and the excess, which I’ve translated as “ambition.” Too much philotimia is improper, but in itself, according to Aristotle, is actually a virtue; one should aspire to be good.
- Finally, and this is important given how central friendship is for Aristotle, take a close look at the mean for Amicability, from the Latin amicus, for friend. It is not friendship, and philia is not exactly the right word. Aristotle himself admits that it is difficult to name the mean between a flatterer and a curmudgeon; it only “resembles” friendship (Ross, sect.6). Therefore it might be best referred to as a friend-likeness, friendliness.
What are some things you notice about this list? Join the conversation by leaving your thoughts in the comments below!
 Translation of Philoctetes, by Sophocles, in Robert Meagher, Killing from the Inside Out (Wipf & Stock, 2015), 7