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Assignment 01

Jean du Plessis: 34890963

CLS 823-9 Stream C

Classical Philosophy

Question 2: Give a concise explanation of Aristotle’s concept of ‘moral virtue’.

Illustrate how the different qualifications he posits for such virtue are applied to


In his work the Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle examines human ethical conduct

especially moral virtue and one of its manifestations i.e. 'Courage’.

To Aristotle the Nicomachean Ethics were more than just a philosophical work; to

him ethical conduct in the morally virtuous sense was a prerequisite for a person’s

well being and his or her ultimate aim or telos. He hoped his work would serve in

some extent as a guideline for his students and the generations to come. To better the

world they live in, by living a moral virtuous life and thus giving them a greater

understanding of the ‘goodness’ and so enhancing their own happiness.

In his works Aristotle describes the soul to have two elements which are rational and

irrational. The irrational part of the soul is concerned with the nutritive faculty of life

and the desire/appetitive faculty. Virtue however falls into the rational element which

separates humans from beasts.

Virtue, according to Aristotle, can be divided into two aspects; intellectual virtue and

moral virtue. Intellectual virtue being that which is taught, requiring experience and

time for its growth. Moral virtue on the other hand has its origins in habit.
In Books II to V of his Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle discusses and explains the

concept of moral virtue and the manifestation of it. He explains that moral virtue,

having its origin in habit, can not be from nature as no habit finds any origin in nature.

He gives a simple example of a rock, it can not be habituated to move upwards, nor

can a fire be habituated to move downwards. Everything in nature can not be trained

to perform or behave in any other way than it already does. These senses for example

come from nature, we did not get them from hearing or seeing but they were already

there at birth.

Virtue on the other hand is not there from birth but is created by exercising the

virtues. By doing our acts of everyday life we create virtue and it is through these

acts that we become just or unjust.

Aristotle explains that our character is thus built out of the activities and deeds that we

perform. These habits that we form in our youth, makes all the difference in the moral

virtue we build. One can thus only teach virtue to a person who leads a virtues life, for

virtue is only acquired through performing virtues acts. I.e. by performing temperate

acts, one becomes temperate.

In Book II-V of the Ethics Aristotle sets out to define Moral Virtue. He clearly states

that there is no precise dogma for moral virtue as it is highly dependable on the

situation. This is where his theory of the ‘mean’ plays a major factor, as well as where

excess and defects come into play. Aristotle gives excess and defects as destroyers of

virtue. He gives yet another simple but enlightening example of a man how fears

everything and runs always from fear, becomes a coward, a man how meets danger,
always head on with no concern for himself or others around him becomes ruthless.

None of these men are virtuous.

According to Chapter II ones moral actions would differ from one situation to

another. An example, kill a person for no real reason would be a non-virtuous act.

However, if one kills a man in battle, one takes the life of the enemy of your state and

it could be seen as a service to the state and thus a virtuous act. One’s virtuous action

(the Mean) will largely depend on different circumstances. Even though no set of

dogmatic rules can be applied to virtue, there can be a form of guidelines. This is the

purpose of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics.

In Chapter III we find that moral virtue is largely concerned with pleasure and pain.

“It is on account of the pleasure that we do bad things, and on the account of the pain

that we abstain from noble ones”. From this we can see the connection between Moral

Virtue and pain and pleasure. Therefore, to achieve moral excellence we need to be

able to face pain and not indulge in all pleasures. In order to achieve this we need a

certain upbringing, we need to be taught this from a young age. Here we can see the

reflection on one of Aristotle’s earlier remarks on moral virtue that it is impossible to

teach a base man to act morally.

In the 4th chapter Aristotle gives three things that influence moral virtue. One needs

these things to perform virtuous acts; firstly, the right knowledge of virtue, secondly

one must choose how to act and lastly he must act with surety and an unchangeable

Another important element found in this chapter is that the manner of a virtuous man

is left undefined. Very little is discussed on what deeds are virtuous and how to act

virtuous. This gives us an idea of Aristotle’s audience. He expects them to make their

own discussions on moral virtue, on what acts are virtuous or how to act in different

circumstances. This reflects on the concept about virtue having no set of dogmatic

principles or rules and that his works must be seen as guidelines. His students are

educated men, and in some sense, Aristotle sees no need to spoon feed them, leaving

the major discussions of virtue in their hands, leaving them to make the choice.

Besides, these men should already have, to some extent, a base and knowledge of

moral virtue in order for them to learn anything from the great teacher. As Aristotle

made clear, it is impossible to teach a man anything of moral virtue, that has no

knowledge of it.

Aristotle’s next chapter moves more to a definition of virtue. According to Aristotle

the soul is divided into three things; passion, faculty and a state of character. Virtue

lies not in the passions as one is not judged according to one’s passions or feelings.

Virtue is neither resided in faculty for the same reason, therefore it must reside in the

state of character.

In Chapter 6 he describes the sort of state of character. Again we see that the ‘mean’

plays a significant role. Aristotle states that every virtuous act will depend on the

‘mean’, in other words, a virtuous act is wholly dependable on the demand of the

situation. Here again he refers to the excess and defects which destroys moral virtue.

Each man will have to judge the situation on his own merits. This brings us back to

Aristotle leaving the manner of the virtuous man undefined in Chapter 4. A man’s
ability to judge on merit, how to act in a situation is done by the experience or

practical wisdom, which Aristotle refers to as ‘phronesis’, he gained from acting

virtuously in a similar situation earlier in life.

Aristotle begins his 3rd book, which main concern is courage, a manifestation of moral

virtue, by listing some fearful things which he sees as evils. These would be, disgrace,

poverty, death, disease etc. These are the things that we fear because they are evil. He

continues by saying that it is noble to fear some of these things such as disgrace. If

one fears disgrace it means one has self-respect, if not one is shameless.

This brings us to the fact that a shameless person is in some twisted way brave

because he does not fear disgrace.

We have to ask ourselves, with what fearful things are brave men concerned?

Aristotle explains that some fearful things are not fearful to some men because they

have experience in it. But there are some things beyond human strength that should be

feared by all men with some sense.

Now, a brave man will face anything, even if it brings him fear, but it is the way he

meets this evil that makes him brave. He will meet it a noble way for honour’s sake.

The way that one meets these evils, the noble and honourable way, even if they cause

fear, could be described as courage. A coward will fear all things and his actions or

the way he meets these fears will not be noble and he would be seen without courage.

The rash man who meets all dangers could be seen as a defect, as it is not done in a

noble and honourable way. Therefore all men are concerned with the same fears but

act differently on them.

It is thus clear that courage is a mean with respect to things that inspire fear of

confidence. Courage is thus clearly a manifestation of virtue; it is the virtuous way to

meet evils.

Aristotle goes on by listing five examples seeming manifestations of courage.

The first he lists, Aristotle considers being the closest to true courage, which is that of

the citizen soldier. It is considered close to true courage as it is due to virtue that the

individual act brave. It however is not pure true courage because the individual is

acting on the fear of being disgraced and/or on the desire for being seen as noble.

A man of true courage does fear disgrace but this is not his reason for acting brave.

He is brave simply for honour’s sake.

The second example is the idea of knowledge being a manifestation of courage. It

seems that some men are brave because they have superior knowledge about a battle

ground and know they will win for example. This however is not true courage

because if the roles were reversed these men would not necessarily have courage.

A man of true courage will stand and fight without knowledge or experience.

A third example is passion. Passion is often seen as a form of courage but it can not

be seen as true courage. If one acts on passion alone one becomes rash and reckless.

One of true courage can not be reckless because his actions are not noble or

The next example Aristotle gives as those who seem brave because they are sanguine

people. Their bravery lies in the idea that they are unbeatable. Once their confidence

in this idea is broken they lose their bravery.

He who acts with true courage never loses his bravery and is steadfast to the very end.

“The Spartans do not ask how many, but where they are”

Agelaus, king of Sparta

The 5th and final example given to us by Aristotle is those how seem brave simply

because they are ignorant to the dangers they will face. As soon as they realise the

true danger they flee. He who acts with true courage does not run or lose his bravery

when the odds are greater than expected.

Once again Aristotle does not clearly say how a man of true courage should act but he

gives guidelines through his examples of how not to act. Therefore we can deduct that

a man of true courage does not need any reason to be brave except for the simple sake

of honour. His source of bravery is not fear, superior knowledge, passion, confidence

or ignorance, even though he might posses all or some of these traits, such as fear for

losing his good name, or passion in battle. No, a person’s source for true courage

comes from the concept of honour.

“Self-respect is the chief element in courage; courage is the chief element honour”


Dr J M Strijdom, UNISA Study Guide for CLS822-8, Classical Cultures UNISA


Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Translated by David Ross, Oxford University Press