Aristotle’s Ethics

C. D. C. Reeve

Men, Aristotle famously says, are by nature political animals -- animals with the natural potential for life in a polis or city (Pol. 1253a7-18). Their happiness (eudaimonia), interwoven as it is with that of their wives, children, friends, and fellow citizens (NE 1097b8-14), is a communal achievement, requiring “household management and a political system” (NE 1142a9-10). But it is also a communal achievement in another sense: it is only by being brought up and educated in a city that human beings can acquire virtue (aretê) -- that state of character whose expression in action just is genuine happiness (NE 1098a7-17). The very thing that distinguishes a city from all other sorts of communities, indeed, is that it alone educates its citizens in virtue (Pol. 1280a34-b15). Nature provides the potential for city life, then, while education helps to realize that potential, giving men the traits needed to perfect their natures as citizens and achieve happiness. Education is a part of politics for this reason.

Ancient Greek political thought distinguished three types of political systems or constitutions (politeiai): rule by “the one” (monarchy), by “the few” (oligarchy), and by “the many” (democracy). The most important way in which these systems differ, in Aristotle’s view, is in their aims or goals (Pol. 1289a17-28), that is to say, in their conceptions of happiness (Pol. 1328a41-b2, NE 1095a17-1096a10). The goal of a correct system such as a kingship or an aristocracy (Pol. 1289a30-2) is blessed happiness of the most complete sort (Pol. 1324a23-5) -- “a complete activation or use of virtue” (Pol. 1332a9-10). The goal of an incorrect system, such as oligarchy, is wealth. That of democracy, another incorrect system, is freedom. For oligarchs, believe that happiness consists in wealth and the things money can buy (Pol. 1280a25-32, 1311a9-10), while democrats believe that it consists in being free to live as one wishes (Pol. 1310a29, 1317a40-41).

A second important difference between these systems is that they embody different conceptions of justice (Pol. III.9). Their rulers all agree that a just share in ruling office and other political goods must be based on merit, and that a person’s merit is determined by his contribution to achieving the goal of the system. But because they disagree about what that goal is, they disagree about what determines merit. Oligarchs hold that it is wealth, so that just shares must be commensurate with wealth or property; democrats hold that it is free status, so that all free citizens must have equal shares; those in a correct system hold that it is virtue, so that just shares should be commensurate with virtue (Pol. 1283a24-6). Because justice “is complete virtue . . . in relation to another” (NE 1129b25-7), the different systems also have different conceptions of all the other individual virtues that together make up complete virtue (Pol. 1309a36-9).

Of these different conceptions of happiness, justice, and virtue generally, only one is correct, however, namely, the one that accords with human nature. This is the conception embodied in the correct or non-deviant systems. For only there do individuals really achieve what is genuinely their common advantage, namely, to fulfill their true natures and achieve true happiness as parts of a city. Put another way, it is only in the correct systems that the virtues of a good man coincide with those of a good citizen (Pol. 1288a37-9, 1293b5-6). None the less, the conceptions embodied in the other systems, though deviant, are not simply wrong (NE 1134a24-30). For example, both democrats and oligarchs “grasp justice of a sort, but they make only limited progress, and do not discuss authentic justice in its entirety” (Pol. 1280a9-11). The same is true of their conceptions of virtue and happiness (NE I.5).

Because virtues differ from political system to political system, the education that inculcates them must differ as well (Pol. 1337b1-4). However, in each case it must suit the system, furthering the stable, long-term achievement of its characteristic and defining goal (Pol. 1260b8-20, 1337a11-21). To do this most effectively, Aristotle argues, it must, in the first place, be public -- provided by the state:

No one would dispute that legislators should be particularly concerned with the education of the young, since in cities where they aren’t the political system is harmed. Moreover, the education should suit the political system in question. For in addition to establishing the system initially, the character peculiar to each system usually safeguards it as well: the democratic character preserves a democracy; the oligarchic one, an oligarchy; and a better character results in a better political system in all cases. Besides, prior education and habituation are required in order to perform certain elements of the task of any capacity or craft. Hence it is clear that this also holds for the activities of virtue. And since the whole city has one single end or goal, it is evident that education too must be one and the same for all, and that its supervision must be communal, not private as it is at present. Nowadays, each individual supervises his own children privately and gives them whatever private instruction he thinks best. But training for communal matters should also be communal. (Pol. 1337a10-27)

Moreover, public education should be provided to all the citizens, suiting them not just for their public, political functions but for their private, domestic ones as well:

As for husbands and wives, fathers and children, the virtues appropriate to each of them, the sorts of relations between them that are good and not good, and how to achieve the good ones and avoid the bad ones -- all these topics will have to await our discussion of the various political systems. For these relationships are parts of a household; every household is part of a city; and the virtue of a part must be determined by looking to the virtue of the whole. Hence women and children must be educated to suit the political system -- if indeed it makes any difference to the virtue or excellence of a city that its women and children be virtuous. And it must make a difference, since half the free population are women and the citizens are children who have grown up. (Pol. 1260b8-20)

So thoroughly does Aristotleian politics suffuse every aspect of community life, then, that the very natures of the relationships between husbands, wives, and children that constitute the household differ from political system to political system.

Just as the correct political systems, embodying the correct conceptions of virtue and happiness, are those based on human nature, so too the correct sort of education must also be based on human nature, respecting its needs, abilities, and limitations (Pol. 1337a1-3). Now, in Aristotle’s view, human beings are psychophysical organisms, whose psyche or soul is responsible for their life and characteristic functioning. These souls have both a rational component, which is the locus of practical reason (phronêsis) and intellect (nous), and a non-rational component, which can yet be influenced by reason, and which is the locus of appetites and emotions. Hence Aristotelian education has three broad constituents: training for the body (gymnastikê); habituation for the appetites and emotions (ethismos); and instruction -- or “education through reason” -- for the rational part (Pol. 1332b10-11, 1338b4-5). Their collective goal is to produce an harmonious, integrated person, one whose soul is organized so as to best promote his true happiness.

Training of the body begins in infancy, but that body is itself in part a social product, shaped for life in a political system with specific values, ideals, and goals. For, like Plato before him, Aristotle argues that political systems should regulate human reproduction so as to ensure a supply of children with the sorts of bodies the political system needs (Pol. VII.16). Ideally, these bodies are ones that physical training can bring into a condition “that promotes not just one thing, as the condition of a professional athlete does, but all the actions or activities of free or civilized people; and these should be available to women as well as men” (Pol. 1335b9-12). Evenly balanced, harmonious, graceful, and equipped for many activities, the body that results from such training is a resonant allegory, as we shall see, of the ideal Aristotelian human soul.

To understand Aristotle’s views on the education of the soul, we need to set them in the context of a somewhat richer account of his psychology. An action or activity (praxis) expressing practical-reason is paradigmatically (though not always) the result of a decision (proairesis), which is itself a desire based on deliberation (bouleusis) and wish (boulêsis); wish is a rational desire for happiness or what the agent conceives as such (NE 1113a9-14, 1139a31-b5, 1113a3-5). Before we begin to deliberate at all, however, we have to be presented with a practical problem to deliberate about. Sometimes it is our appetites that present us with such problems. We are hungry; we desire to eat; we wish for happiness. Should we order the poached sole (low fat, high protein) or the lasagna (high fat, high fiber)? We decide on sole with a salad, on the grounds that this combines low fat, high protein, and high fiber. For we believe that this is the kind of food that best promotes health, and that being healthy promotes our happiness. If our appetites are generally or habitually in accord with our wish, then (everything else being equal) we have the virtue of temperance (sôphrosunê). If the two are not generally in accord, we may be either weak-willed (appetite overpowers wish) or self-controlled (wish overpowers appetite). In either case, we experience painful inner conflict rather than the pleasurable inner harmony characteristic of virtue. For unlike the joylessly dutiful, Aristotelian virtuous agents take pleasure in doing what virtue demands of them -- they positively enjoy the sole and salad and do not hanker after the lasagne.

Often, however, it is not our appetites that present us with practical problems but the situation in which we perceive ourselves to be. And one important way situations bring themselves to our attention is through our emotions or feelings. They may, for example, arouse our anger or fear, and these emotions, having motivational force, set us deliberating much as our appetites do. It is not bare, unconceptualized situations, however, that affect us in these ways. Fear and anger are triggered by situations perceived as insults or threats. Indeed, they help to interpret or compose the very situations to which they are responses. An overly fearful person tends to see situations as threatening; an overly angry person sees insults in every harmless utterance. For “we are easily deceived by our sense perceptions when we are in an emotional state . . . so that even a very slight resemblance makes the coward think that he sees his enemy . . ., and the more emotional he is, the smaller is the similarity required to produce this effect” (Parva Naturalia 460b3-11). But these non-normal cases dramatize what is true of all of us: feeling anger or fear and seeing situations as insults or as threats go hand-in-hand.

The reason our emotions are modes of practical perception -- or motivating ways we perceive situations as requiring deliberation and action -- is that, though they typically involve sensations and somatic disturbances, there is more to them than that: they also essentially embody beliefs and desires. Anger is “boiling of the blood around the heart” (De Anima 403a27-b2), but it also involves complex beliefs and desires about such ethically salient things as insults and revenge: it is “a desire accompanied by pain to take what is believed to be revenge because of what is believed to be an insult” (Rhetoric 1378a30-2). Now the virtues of character, as we have seen in the case of temperance, are concerned with our appetites, but they are also concerned with our emotions or feelings. Virtue is a matter of feeling the right things “at the right times, about the right things, towards the right people, for the right end, and in the right way” (NE 1106b21-3). So someone who possesses the virtues will have feelings that correctly interpret a situation, that are appropriately responsive to it.

What exactly do “right,” “correctly,” and “appropriately” mean here? Because emotions involve beliefs, they are potentially rational and educable. An overly fearful person can become less so through learning that the things he fears really pose no threat to him. But emotions also involve desires and somatic factors, and these are less easily changed by cognitive means: we may need time and experience with, say, garden snakes in order not to tremble or desire to flee when we see one. And this may continue to be so even after we have come to know coldly in the head that they are harmless. That is why habituation is typically needed to acquire the virtues. But habituation is not merely behavioral, it is also intellectual. In learning to fear correctly we are acquiring the capacity to see the right things as threatening or dangerous as well as gaining control of our trembling limbs and our desire to flee. What makes our fear correct in all these ways, however, is its relation to happiness. Our fear is correct, the beliefs involved in it are true, we possess the virtue related to it (courage), just in case fearing the things we do, to the degree we do, at the times we do really does promote our genuine happiness.

Our habits of desiring and feeling -- especially those developed in early life (NE 1095b4-8) -- largely determine how we will act, but they also do much to determine our very conception of the goal of action: happiness. We come to enjoy fatty foods, for example, and so come to associate eating them with living well and being happy, by being allowed to eat them freely when we are children and developing a taste for them (or perhaps by being forbidden to eat them in a way that makes them irresistibly attractive). If we had acquired “good eating habits” instead, we would have a different conception of that part of happiness that involves diet. If our upbringing has made us timorous, it will be difficult for us to experience the good things -- such as fighting for justice -- that require courage. If it has made us self-indulgent, so that we cannot postpone gratification, we will have difficulty experiencing the good things -- such as playing the piano well or appreciating Proust or understanding Gödel’s theorem -- that take discipline and long training or study. But without the experience we will find it difficult even to understand an argument in favor of those goods: “someone whose life follows his feelings would not listen to an argument turning him away or even understand it” (NE 1179b26-8). Our habits thus limit our capacities for new experiences of what is good or valuable, and so lock us to some extent into our old values, making them seem the only genuine ones. To be sure, we should not overdo the metaphors of locks and chains: habits can be broken; bad habits replaced by better ones and vice versa. All the same, “it is not easy to alter what has long been absorbed by habit” (NE 1179b16-18).

What makes a certain conception correct, however, is not that it happens to emerge from our habits in this way, but that it is properly based on our nature. For it is our nature, and not what we happen to wish for or decide on, that determines what our happiness really is. None the less, our habits do still largely determine what will look like happiness to us. So it is clearly of the greatest importance that we develop good habits of liking and disliking or desiring and rejecting -- habits that will lead us both to conceive happiness correctly and to decide and do what will most promote it (Pol. 1331b26-1332a10). That is why it is “it is hard for someone to be trained correctly for virtue from his youth if he has not been brought up under correct laws” (NE 1179b31-1180a3). But our need for such laws does not end with childhood: “it is advantageous for anyone to be under constraint, and not to be able to do whatever seems good to him, for freedom to do whatever one likes leaves one defenseless against the bad things that exist in every human being” (Pol. 1318b38-1319a1). Moreover, this remains true no matter how virtuous we become, for “passion is like a wild beast and anger perverts rulers even when they are the best men” (Pol. 1287a30-2). Our need to be under law, and the threat of sanction, is therefore lifelong.

Appetites and emotions are concerned with what Aristotle calls “external goods,” that is to say, with both “goods of competition” -- which include money, honor, and physical pleasure: things people tend to fight over -- and with having friends, which “seems to be the greatest external good” (NE 1169b9-10). Consequently, the virtues of character are themselves particularly concerned with external goods, since, as we saw, they ensure that our appetites and emotions are correct. For example, courage is concerned with painful feelings of fear and pleasant feelings of confidence; temperance, with the pleasures of taste and touch (NE 1118a23-b8); special justice, with acquisitiveness (pleonexia) -- with wanting more and more of the external goods of competition (NE 1129b1-4); general justice, with friendship and community. It is our needs for these goods that lead us to form communities in the first place (Pol. I.1-2). But these same needs also bring us into conflict with one another. The single major cause of political instability, indeed, is competition -- especially between the rich and the poor -- for external goods such as wealth and honor (Pol. V.1). The political significance of the virtues is therefore assured; without them (or something like them) no system can long be stable. For “the law has no power to secure obedience except habit or custom” (Pol. 1269a20-1).

The goal of an Aristotelian education of the appetites and emotions, then, is to produce citizens with the virtues and the conception of happiness suited to their political system, citizens for whom acting in accord with the laws is second nature, having seeped into their characters like dye into wool. If we have received such an education in a correct political system, we will have all the genuine virtues of character; our feelings will be in harmony with our wish; our wish will be for genuine and not merely apparent happiness. Equipped with good habits and living in a good political system, haven’t we everything we need to ensure, as far as any human being can, that we will live happily?

It is certainly crucial to have been brought up with good habits “if we are to be adequate students of what is fine and just and of political questions generally” (NE 1095b4-6). But good habits, though necessary, are not sufficient. Ideally, we should also receive the sort of explicit instruction in ethics and politics, outlined in Aristotle’s treatises on these subjects (VII.1-3, NE I.3), that will turn us into “adequate students.” For ethics and politics are bodies of practical knowledge, like medicine, whose goal is “action not knowledge” (NE 1095a5-6). Ethics makes us “more likely to hit the right mark” (NE 1094a22-4) -- genuine happiness -- by providing us with a clear and explicit conception of what it is; politics, insofar as we may separate it from ethics, provides us with the knowledge needed to design political systems in which such happiness is achieved as fully as circumstances permit (Pol. IV.1).

When instruction has done this work, and a clear conception of happiness is added to our properly habituated soul, we acquire practical-wisdom (phronêsis) and political knowledge (politikê epistêmê). For these are pretty much the same capacity applied to different areas: practical-wisdom primarily seeks the good of the individual; political knowledge seeks the same good for an entire city (NE 1094b7-10, 1141b23-4). Moreover, when we acquire practical-wisdom we simultaneously acquire the full-blown virtues of character:

Each of us seems to possess his type of character to some extent by nature, since we are just, prone to moderation, and courageous, or have another feature immediately from birth. However, we still search for some other condition as being full goodness and expect to possess these features in another way. For these natural states belong to children and to beasts as well, but without intellect they are evidently harmful. At any rate, this much would seem to be clear: just as a heavy body moving around unable to see suffers a heavy fall because it has no sight, so it is with [natural] virtue. But if someone acquires intellect, he begins to act well; and the state he now has though still like the natural one, will be full virtue. (NE 1144b4-14; see also 1117a4-5, 1144b30-1145a2)

Before we acquire full virtue, then, we have only natural or habituated virtue. We are disposed to listen to reason, but we do not yet have the kind of understanding of happiness -- of our goal in life -- that comes from instruction and the critical and reflective self-consciousness it makes possible.

A clear, self-conscious grasp of happiness is an important individual possession, obviously. It makes us more secure in our values and gives us the sort of self-knowledge that is intrinsically valuable and that promotes effective action in previously unencountered types of situations. But it is an even more important possession for a political ruler. For a ruler is charged with the legislative task of designing a system of laws for a city that will enable its citizens to achieve happiness.

Instruction in ethics and politics is for the most part practical; it is directed largely to one of the components of the rational part of our souls, and aims to produce practical-wisdom. But the rational part of our soul has another component -- namely, intellect (nous) -- which also requires instruction. Here the goal is to produce a generally educated (pepaideumenos) or civilized (eleutherios) person:

In every study and investigation, humbler or more honorable alike, there appear to be two kinds of competence. One can properly be called scientific-knowledge of the subject, the other as it were a sort of educatedness. For it is the mark of an educated person to be able to reach a judgment based on a sound estimate of what is properly expounded and what isn’t. For this in fact is what we take to be characteristic of a generally educated person. And we expect such a person to be able to judge in practically all subjects. (Parts of Animals 639a1-6; see also NE 1094b28-1095a2)

A generally educated person studies practically all subjects, then, not just one. Moreover, he does so not to acquire expert scientific knowledge in all of them (which would be impossible), but in order to become a good judge. Having studied medicine “as part of his general education,” for example, he is as capable of judging “whether or not someone has treated a disease correctly” as an expert doctor (Pol. 1282a3-7); having studied rhetoric, perhaps by attending the lectures that make up Aristotle’s own Rhetoric, he won’t mistake rhetorical skill for genuine political knowledge (Rh. 1356a27-9); having theoretical knowledge of all the various aspects of wealth-acquisition, he will have a good grasp of economics (Pol. 1258b9-11, 33-5); having studied philosophy, he knows that logic precedes metaphysics (Metaph. 1106a5-11); acquainted with many subjects, methodologies, and areas of study, he knows “what we should and should not seek to have demonstrated” (Metaph. 1106a5-11) and “seeks exactness in each area to the extent that the subject-matter allows” (NE 1094b23-7).

Because he is able to judge the works and advice of experts, a generally educated person is free from the sort of intellectual enslavement to them that would otherwise be his lot. He knows who is and who isn’t worth listening to on any matter and so can get good expert advice when he needs it. But he is also free from the inner enslavement that is all too often the lot of the narrow expert, whose imagination is straight-jacked by the one thing he knows too well. For, while he has indeed studied all the “civilized sciences,” he has done so only “up to a point,” and not so assiduously or pedantically as “to debase the mind and deprive it of leisure” (1337b14-17). Evenly balanced, harmonious, possessed of sound judgment, and equipped for many activities, a generally educated person’s intellect is an analogue of the ideal Aristotelian body.

With this portrait of Aristotle’s educated person to hand, we are in a position briefly to assess its relevance for us. Our notion of a liberally-educated person is, of course, a descendant of Aristotle’s civilized one -- “liberal” derives from “liberalis”; “liberalis” translates “eleutherios.” But because of the distinctive conception of general education involved in it, Aristotle’s notion is in better order than ours. Like us, Aristotle thinks that a generally educated person must have, for example, some level of scientific training in science -- medicine, say. But the level of training and its precise nature are determined by its goal, which is not to produce doctors, but people able to judge doctors and -- as it might be -- the health-care programs they design. In Aristotle’s view, as we have seen, this means that general education must be guided by some examined and defensible conception of the human good, and must be organized to free future citizens and political rulers from enslavement to experts. By contrast, and putting it all too crudely and bluntly, the general distribution requirements that some of our best liberal arts colleges still enforce often serve no very clear purpose other than that of allowing students to try on a variety of academic outfits before deciding which one to buy. Satisfying a science requirement, for example, by taking a first-year biology course designed to serve the needs of biology majors seldom provides students with any of the sort of understanding of science that might enable them to participate effectively in a public debate about whether or not “creation science” should be taught alongside evolutionary biology, or whether hormone replacement therapy for post-menopausal women is based on sound, neutral science or on sexist assumptions about women and their lives. It is surely not just starry-eyed to think that Aristotle’s educated person would think better about these questions than a contemporary liberal arts student with a good degree in, say, English literature or Cultural Studies.

Speaking of the liberal arts naturally brings us to that other way in which Aristotelian education seems in better order than ours. Our liberal arts departments sometimes seem to sequester real art -- art that might serve as an axe for the frozen seas within us -- behind an anesthetizing scrim of fashionable but usually somewhat evanescent theory. Instead of offering students close dangerous play with great poetry, for example, instead of training their judgment and emotional discrimination and responsivity, literary studies all too often seems simply to inoculate them against the effects of literature. No doubt, the riskiness of such play for a teacher, who must put his or her own sensitivity and judgment on the line in order to engage in it, partly explains the appeal of theory (in this respect, criticism is like ethics). But whatever about that, the neglect of such education in our academies is, in terms of its human costs, surely something that, partly guided by Aristotle, we should try to remedy.