The Greek word “?????” or “arete” translates to the English
word “virtue,” and is defined as “excellence of any kind”. In simple
terms, it means something does what it’s supposed to do, and does it well. For
example, a car’s “virtues” would embody things like reliability,
safety, and fuel economy. It was not until Socrates began his study of ethics
in the 4th century BCE that the word gained possession of any moral or ethical
connotations. His investigation of ethics was the pinnacle of his career and
spanned many years. After his death in 399 BCE, his doctrine was adopted and
sustained by his most notable student, Plato, who followed in his mentor’s
footsteps and left the theory his own famed pupil, Aristotle. After nearly a
century of contemplation, divided between three generations, it was Aristotle
who finally managed to establish a distinct, recognized philosophical
discipline. Coined ‘Virtue Ethics’, the theory is an exploration of the lives
that human beings are innately designed to lead. The branch focuses on
character and the purpose it serves in morality and ethics. In relation to the
car analogy, a person’s virtues could be kindness, respect, and
When looking at virtue, both Plato and Aristotle commenced
their studies by focusing on characteristics which were considered most
intrinsically valuable within Greek society at the time. The four most vital
qualities were wisdom, courage, moderation, and justice, and were foundational
to life in Classical Greece. Keeping these key societal and humanistic traits
at the forefront of their investigations, they strived to answer three main
questions within virtue ethics; How do we become virtuous? Are the virtues
unified? and Are happiness and virtue connected? Upon initial consideration,
the difference between right and wrong seems like a rather elementary notion;
it is questions such as these, among an abundance of others, that highlight the
underlying complexities deeply embedded within the tenet of ethics and places
an emphasis on the simple reality that defining and practicing a ubiquitous
moral code is actually not simple at all.
When addressing morality, the first article to consider is
how humans enter the world. Are we born a blank canvas, or do we possess
predisposed traits that shape our personal values? If people are in fact born
completely free of any outside influences, how does one go about becoming a
virtuous member of society? In Plato’s opinion, knowledge is virtue; an idea
learned from his teacher, Socrates. In basic terms, to know good is to do good.
This is made explicitly clear in the Protagoras, a renowned Socratic dialogue.
The case begins with the foundational idea that people desire what they believe
to be good. Plato claims that when a person does something wrong, it is not
because they intend to do wrong, but rather their choice was fortified by the
steadfast belief that their decision was ‘good’ and morally correct. What
separates virtuous from un-virtuous people is not the longing for good, but the
knowledge of what that good truly is. Plato’s concept of human virtue can
essentially be condensed into two points; 1) being knowledgeable about what is
good, and 2) possessing the ability correctly select the actions that have the
greatest positive outcome. Aristotle’s theory is almost entirely in opposition
to Plato’s — knowing the good wasn’t good enough. He believed that in order to be good, one had
to practice good, habitually. Despite the fact that the concept of free will
was likely an impalpable idea for Aristotle due to the theory’s more modern,
largely Christian nature, he did believe that practicing virtue on one’s own
volition is what made humans good. To truly be virtuous one must accustom
themselves to virtue, practice it regularly and be virtuous intentionally. I
agree with Aristotle because simply knowing about good doesn’t mean you are a
good person. People can be mindful their poor choices and not be an ethical
person. They know their actions are harmful yet proceed to do it anyway. In
accordance with Plato’s theory, this is a morally correct person simply because
they are aware that what they are doing is wrong. Morality is regrettably not
Another dilemma which received a sizable measure of attention
from the philosophers was the question of whether or not the virtues are
directly linked to one another. Are all the virtues fundamentally the same? If
one virtue is obtained, do the remaining virtues come with it? Plato would say
yes. His confidence in the idea that knowledge and virtue were essentially
synonymous prompted his subsequent belief that all virtues were linked to
wisdom. If a person is wise, they will automatically acquire all other virtues.
He supported the unity of the virtues and the premise that all “virtues are a
distinct part of a whole”. Oppositely, Aristotle felt that although wisdom is
the uppermost form of virtue, it is not an all-encompassing umbrella that
possesses all other virtues. One can be wise and knowledgeable about the world
but still, fail to be a virtuous or moral member of society. In simpler terms,
Aristotle denies the unity of the virtues. Again, I am in agreeance with
Aristotle that wisdom is not an accumulation of all other virtues. A person can
be wise but still selfish, or kind but also gluttonous. One virtue is not an
ethical “fastpass” to all the others.
When people discuss the ‘good life’, most think about opulent
manors and luxury vehicles – the human mind seldom drifts towards anything
outside the realm of material goods or needless extravagances. In a borderline
animalistic manner, we long for overindulgences and wealth, but what is the
good life really? Both philosophers
spent a great deal of time concerning themselves with the question of how one
should live in order to achieve this ‘good life’. They discovered that in order
to achieve the goal of true happiness, one must develop behaviors and character
traits that would prompt the pursuit of activities which yielded pleasure.
While both philosophers felt virtue was paramount to achieving the good life,
their grounds for associating the two components with one another differed
greatly. Plato believed that virtue was all that was needed for one to achieve
true happiness — if a person practiced kindness and moral correctness then
happiness was a guarantee. The pitfall in Plato’s theory was his neglect of the
notion that good people could still be unhappy. This was contradictory to
Aristotle’s theory, which suggested that although virtue is necessary to the
good life, virtue alone is insufficient for true contentment. One can be
virtuous but miserable simultaneously. It was penned in one of his dialogues
that to achieve true happiness, a person needed to live not only in a virtuous
manner independently, but also in harmony amongst other upstanding citizens.
Society as a whole must be inherently good.
While overall, I agree with Aristotle’s views, Plato drew on
many notable points as well. My largest opposition to both philosophers though
is their false assumption that the human condition commences with an entirely
blank canvas. Modern science has proven the role of genetics and environment in
character and disposition. Hereditary influences trace back to the commencement
of our species. For example, a dog that learns a new trick transfers its
knowledge to its succeeding kin. And while genes play an integral role in human
development, our environment is an even greater factor, which aids in
conditions our behavior through ancestry, race, religion, education and social
status as well as a multitude of others. Humans are heavily influenced by
factors which are well outside their control. In relation to practicing or
knowing good, what any given person believes to be good is influenced by a
variety of uncontrollable factors and varies greatly among people. Plato felt
wisdom was most important, but his belief was just that: a belief, a personal
opinion. What virtue any given individual believes to be most important is
different for everyone. This criticism also applies to what is considered ‘the
good life’ as it differs from person to person, too. Both Plato and Aristotle’s
theories are very narrow and leave little room for variation.
Throughout their lives, both Plato and Aristotle spent a
substantial ration of time looking at how virtue plays a role in the lives of
people and their moral compass. They looked at how people can become virtuous,
how virtues are linked to one another and also how they are linked to the
overall quality of life. Interestingly, Aristotle’s views on all these points
epitomized the more conventional views of Greek society, while Plato’s were
more radical and far-fetched. In conclusion, while the difference between right
and wrong seem like a clear, concise division, Aristotle and Plato prove that
there are many considerations to be made when contemplating ethics and virtues
and the role they play, not only in society as a whole but in the lives of the
individuals within it.
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