In his book, Ethica Nicomachea or Nicomachean Ethics , Aristotle analyses and tries to define the concept of virtue which leads to ευδαιμονία (eudemonia, we use the Greek word because it means lots more than happiness or welfare).
Eudemonia is the highest, also the most beautiful and pleasant Good, in the life of people.
We have a –beautiful like sweet literature- text of practical philosophy.
It will answer questions like:
· what is the human life?
· how can a person become happy?
But let us follow the thought of Aristotle, as briefly as possible, from the beginning.
He starts analyzing the human activities and tries to find out if they have any value, because then and only then can we say that there is value in the human life, as well.
I won’t analyse here the different kinds of activities he is referring to.
He concludes that all our activities finally aim at ευδαιμονία (eudemonia) happiness, because we choose it for what it is and never for the sake of some other “good”.
So, even though, for example, we choose honour, pleasure, noetic (intellectual) activity and generally every other virtue, for what they are of course, we also choose them for the sake of ευδαιμονία (happiness), because we believe that through them, we become happy.
So “ευδαιμονία is the supreme good for man, it is energy of the soul consistent with virtue, and if there are more virtues, it is consistent with the best and most perfect of them” with one more addition, “in a perfect life”.
«Η ευδαιμονία έστι ψυχής ενέργειά τις κατ’ αρετήν τελείαν».
Therefore the central part of Aristotle’s ethical theory is:
Virtue is the means to succeed the highest good for man, which is happiness.
But the definition of the word virtue, was of permanent concern for Aristotle and every time he had a chance he posed the question about virtue and tried to find a satisfactory answer to it.
The main book, however, where he discusses and analyses this issue of the definition of virtue that leads to happiness, is of course Ethica Nicomachea.
He divides the virtues into intellectual and ethical ones.
The intellectual virtues are acquired through teaching;
therefore their acquisition is a matter of “experience and time”.
They constitute the principal role of a teacher.
In contrast to them, the ethical virtues are the outcome of habit.
So it is clear that the acquisition of ethical virtues depends on the person who wants to have them. So none of the ethical virtues is found in ourselves inherently (since what is inherent, as for example the physical characteristics, cannot change due to habit).
[Well, here maybe Darwin some centuries later, would smile questioningly.]
But although the ethical virtues are not innate in humans, people are endowed with the ability to accept them.
They only have to practice them.
So, Aristotle says, that if man wants to successfully acquire the perfect virtue which will lead them to happiness, they have to practice it by habit.
Thus, to acquire a virtue is almost similar to the learning of a craft:
someone becomes a craftsman only if he persistently practices his craft.
In the same way one becomes just or reasonable, (prudent) with practice.
The daily, continuous and incessant contact with people is what makes us just, as our incessant practice to stay courageous facing danger, makes us brave.
But we have to be careful, because this is also the way we become unjust or cowards.
Exactly as we become bad builders if we practice bad building.
This shows the great importance of the will, the choice of the individual.
Consequently the virtue and the badness (evil) are a matter of choice.
Let’s see now how he tries to define Virtue.
Things that happen in the psyche (soul), according to Aristotle, are three in number.
passions, dynameis (forces) and habits.
Aristotle calls passion the desire, rage, fright, courage, envy, joy, friendship, hatred, lust, jealousy, mercy, generally “all of them that are followed by pleasure or sorrow”.
What Aristotle calls a “force” is the capability of man to take part in the passions.
However, nobody is called good or bad due to passions or forces.
We call someone good or bad, Aristotle says, according to the right or wrong attitude towards the passions.
If for example we speak about rage, it is wrong,
1) when we rage about something very strongly, but also when
2) we simply get angry.
What we are aiming at is getting angry in a moderate way, neither raging strongly nor just getting a little angry. Something in the middle.
So rage is not wrong from the beginning.
In the right measure it is a virtue.
What is bad is the extreme rage as well as the insufficient rage.
The question now is “how do we define or recognize the middle of the things” (μέσον).
Which of course is neither one nor the same for everybody.
So the connoisseur avoids the exaggeration and is looking for “the middle way”.
With this subjectivity of “the middle of things” which is different for each human, Aristotle has turned the virtue into a personal matter of each person.
Every human is looking for their own “middle way” and specifies the way to succeed it.
The habit, a permanent and consistent behavior, does not only presuppose will, that means the free choice between good and bad, but also the acceptance of the fact that to acquire virtue is a very difficult task, an acceptance that eventually provides the individual with the disposition for a patient persistence on practice.
It’s a difficult thing to be a carrier of virtue.
“There is one way to be good, thousand ways to be bad”.
So if you want to think deeply and the right way, you should avoid the most difficult for you, out of the two. Because out of the two bad things, -which are the (hyperbole) exaggeration and the (ellipse) “less”-, the one is a bigger enemy, you know which one.
Since it is so difficult to fight both enemies, fight first the less strong one, as you have more hope to get rid of it easier and faster.
The second way to reach the “middle” is to find out which is your inclination.
Don’t mind that at times you go towards the exaggeration and some other times you lean towards “the less”, which means don’t worry when and if you fail in your attempts to find “the middle way”.
So what leads to the virtue is “the middle way” and not the exaggeration or “the less”.
But here comes the next question: less or more than what?
From “δέον» which means: less or more than “what is as it has to be”.
To get angry, Aristotle goes on, to desire, to show your fright or courage, to get happy or sad in general,
the right time you have to,
in connection with the things you have to ,
in connection with the right people,
for the right reason,
in the way you have to,
this is the “middle way” and the Supreme Good (άριστον).
Aristotle, a practical man inherently but also a man of theory, didn’t want to just convey theoretical knowledge to people (like Plato, his teacher), but he also wanted to provide them with a practical guide for their activities.
For the Greeks of the 5th century BC, the same for Aristotle himself, the authority that determines what is right and appropriate in every case and what is not, is the city (πόλις-κράτος).
The city represents the “spirit of the community”, the city is the unwritten, traditional rules of cohabitation (symbiosis).
So, it is the city that determines the things that must be followed to lead to “actions as they have to be” and consequently lead to (eudemonia) happiness.
A second way to do the right things "the way you have to", is to follow the virtue which characterized the important men of the ancestors, who made the city what it was, with their actions and behavior.
Consequently the ethical virtue is a political virtue.
Each citizen tried to reach the individual virtues, so as to be a good citizen, to be worth of the city, and this was the aim of the Greek citizen.
The virtue as it is conceived by an ancient Greek, can be seen very clearly in an hymn that Aristotle wrote for a friend, which I don’t dare to even try to translate, but I will just try to give the general meaning, which is:
You virtue , even if one dies for you, this is a sweet, envious death in Greece.
«Αρετή, πολυβάσανη αγάπη του ανθρώπου,
συ καμάρι ακριβό της ζωής,
και να σβήσει για χάρη σου, κόρη, κανείς
είναι μοίρα γλυκειά, ζηλευτή στην Ελλάδα». (μτφ. Σίμου Μενάρδου)
or in the beautiful language it was written
«Αρετά, πολύμοχθε γένει βροτείω,
θήραμα κάλλιστον βίω
σας πέρι, παρθένε, μορφάς
και θανείν ζηλωτός εν Ελλάδι πότμος.»
Rethymno, December 2017.
1. Having read some translations of Ethica Nicomachea in English, I have seen the different English words that have been used for some ancient Greek words like ευδαιμονία, αγαθό, αρετή and so on. Here, which is just a simple, non professional translation for my English speaking friends, I have used the most recognizable English words.
2. I have also used here, as in the Greek version of my text, some excerpts from the Introduction, by professor D. Lypourlis, in his book on Ηθικά Νικομάχεια.