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

  • From: Robert Paul <robert.paul@xxxxxxxx>
  • To: lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx
  • Date: Tue, 03 Jan 2006 20:08:50 -0800

Bill Ball wrote:

Arete is the perfection of a virtue. The word might be,
in Greek,  entelechy,  a term sometimes meant god-like.

But 'areté' is the word that is frequently, and very often misleadingly (see Marlena's list from a couple of days ago) translated as 'virtue.' so that there is no 'virtue' in the ancient Greek sense to be perfected.
The Greek word is probably best translated as 'excellence,' or left untranslated, as eudaimonia now usually is.

John Wager replied to Bill:

"Arete" would be ANY kind of excellence, including atheletic excellence. There are therefore many kinds of virtue because there are many kinds of excellence. "Virtue" makes it sound too limited, confined just to a moral dimension, while "arete" extends to all fields.

This is certainly true, but it's not very clear unless one knows that Aristotle's account depends on knowing what kind of a thing one is dealing with (a knife, or a man) and further knowing what the function of (a knife or a man) is: a knife's ergon, or function, is to cut (let's say), so the areté of a knife consists in cutting well. Not everybody agrees with Aristotle that human beings have _a_ function; nevertheless, the possession of the various kinds of human aretai do seem conducive to excellent, if you have a certain type of human being in mind.

The kind of "arete" that is a "mean" between extremes Aristotle calls "moral virtue." Thia excellence can be destroyed by too much or too little of the quality. These excellences are developed as habits before we have as much control and awareness as we do as adults. They are excellences that we share, in part, with other animals--courage, or intemperance, are not unknown to dogs and cats, for example.

'Moral virtue,' in the modern sense is probably not the best translation to mark Aristotle's distinction between virtues which are the means of some pathé, or 'emotion,' and aretai of the intellect. Every non-intellectual virtue has its corresponding pathé which is a mean between two others which are 'extremes.' Extremes of what is not exactly clear, but the notion makes a kind of intuitive sense, especially if one imagines a cartoon Greek child swerving between rashness and timidity and finally hitting on courage, with the help of his (yes, his) trainers. In 'Modern Moral Philosophy' [1958] the paper that many think revived the interest in 'virtue ethics,' Elizabeth Anscombe said that those who believe that Aristotle talks about 'moral' issues in the 'modern' sense must feel a bit uncomfortable, 'as if his teeth don't come together in a proper bite.' But although people praise Anscombe, few listen to her—me included, when I talk about 'moral virtue.'

Robert Paul
Reed College

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