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Aristotle (384–322 BC)

DOI
10.4324/9780415249126-A022-1
DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-A022-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved October 17, 2018, from https://www.rep.routledge.com/articles/biographical/aristotle-384-322-bc/v-1

22. Virtue of character

From the general conception of happiness Aristotle infers the general features of a virtue of character (ēthikēaretē; Nicomachean Ethics I 13). He agrees with Plato in recognizing both rational and non-rational desires (see Plato §14). One’s soul is in a virtuous condition in so far as the non-rational elements cooperate with reason; in this condition human beings fulfil their function well. The argument from the human function does not make it clear what states of a rational agent count as fulfilling the human function. Aristotle seeks to make this clearer, first through his general account of virtue of character, and then through his sketches of the individual virtues.

A virtue of character must be a ‘mean’ or ‘intermediate’ state, since it must achieve the appropriate cooperation between rational and non-rational desires; such a state is intermediate between complete indulgence of non-rational desires and complete suppression of them. (Aristotle is not recommending ‘moderation’ – for example, a moderate degree of anger or pleasure – in all circumstances.) The demand for cooperation between desires implies that virtue is more than simply control over desires; mere control is ‘continence’ (enkrateia) rather than genuine virtue.

The task of moral education, therefore, is to harmonize non-rational desires with practical reason. Virtuous people allow reasonable satisfaction to their appetites; they do not suppress all their fears; they do not disregard all their feelings of pride or shame or resentment (Nicomachean Ethics 1126a3–8), or their desire for other people’s good opinion. Aristotle’s sketches of the different virtues show how different non-rational desires can cooperate with practical reason.

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Citing this article:
Irwin, T.H.. Virtue of character. Aristotle (384–322 BC), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-A022-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis, https://www.rep.routledge.com/articles/biographical/aristotle-384-322-bc/v-1/sections/virtue-of-character.
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