[lit-ideas] Re: Definition(s) of Virtue

  • From: Robert Paul <robert.paul@xxxxxxxx>
  • To: lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx
  • Date: Sun, 01 Jan 2006 12:55:18 -0800

I'm surprised that in Marlena's list of opinions about virtue, there's no reference to Aristotle, that hero of virtue, whose investigation of areté is a landmark of Western philosophy—no kidding.

I suspect it was the Greek notion of areté that Bill Ball was asking about when he asked whether virtue (whatever it was) could be taught, and that notion doesn't fit easily with some of the things said about virtue so far.

For Aristotle, virtue was a mean between two extremes, the extremes being defects of character: courage is a mean between rashness and timidity, e.g. (Not everything admits of a mean: there's no such thing as committing adultery in the right way with the right person at the right time—a bit of Aristotelian levity.) The virtues are 'excellences' of human character, but the list of Aristotelian virtues may not exactly match a list made up by people like us who are not male Athenian aristocrats. It would be strange though if timidity and rashness were considered virtues, and the kinds of behaviour that 'virtue' (and obviously ''areté') ranges over don't form an entirely unruly class.

'It is neither by nature nor contrary to it that we are virtuous; rather, we are adapted by nature to receive the virtues, and we become virtuous by habit.' Habituation is helped along by correction and 'training,' by this is not the kind of training the Sophists claimed to be able to provide for the children of the Athenian nouveaux riches.

'Virtue ethics' is making a sort of come back in Western philosophy, but it hasn't replaced the typical concern with rules and principles.

If Bill insists (and I hope he does) I'll read the Protagoras.

Robert Paul
Reed College

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