The virtue of character solidified by habit. Aristotle

The root of Aristotle’s argument of
what the best life for man is can be first traced back to Book 1, Chapter 2 of Politics where he outlines his function
theory claiming ‘everything is defined by its function’ (Politics 1253a – 23).  He expands
on this idea in Nicomachean Ethics claiming the primary human function is ”an
active life of the element that has a rational principle” (NE 1.7 1098a3–4). Fulfilling
their primary function will lead to the flourishing of human beings and set
them on the road to eudaimonia (often
translated as happiness or human flourishing). Aristotle describes the
necessary prerequisites in order to achieve this state of contentedness as being
mastery of intellectual virtues (knowledge of fundamental laws of nature and
knowledge of inference; what comes about in applying these principles) and
virtue of character solidified by habit. Aristotle also accepts that sometimes
certain external factors are not in control of the individual and as a result
the polis is created not to allow citizens to simply live but ‘for the sake of
living well’ (Politics Book 1 Chapter
2 – 30). The path to enlightenment and the virtuous citizen is unsurprisingly
underpinned by virtue theory, reflecting the assumption that humans have a fixed
nature, a grounded essence. Aristotle believed it was imperative we adhere to
‘proper functioning’ as this will provide man with the best life he can
possibly achieve.

In Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle
defeats common misconceptions revolving around what the best life is for man.
The three pillars most commonly associated with happiness but misconceptions
nonetheless, were the pursuit of wealth, honour or bodily pleasures – all of
which are deficient for the highest good for the following reasons: Material
wealth is always acquired for the purpose of obtaining something else (a means
to an end); the pursuit of honour is not connected to any personal
characteristic but instead to the way in which others perceive you and finally
bodily pleasure is not exclusive to human beings, animals can also derive
pleasure. Therefore, Aristotle attempts to identify man’s primary function,
making it separate from animals, which would therefore allow humans to pursue telos (an ultimate objective or aim) –
this being eudaimonia.

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Aristotle understood there had to
be a distinct difference in ergon(job
or function) between what he referred to as the four classifications of life:
plants, animals, humans and Gods. The ergon
of a hammer is to hit or of a muse to sing and each artefact must have an arête to allow it to fulfil its ergon, an excellence or virtue. This
being bluntness for a hammer and the ability to sing well for a muse. Aristotle
makes human and animal proper functioning distinct from one another by
highlighting our ability to reason, something animals cannot do. Just like
Aristotle’s example of the Delphic knife in Book 1 Chapter 2, ‘each instrument
would perform most finely if it served one task rather than many’, (Politics 1252b – 4) he is able to
establish a difference between animal and human primary function by removing
redundant secondary functions which reside in both. Since ‘…the good and the
‘well’ is thought to reside in the function’ (NE 1.7 1097b 26-27) the highest
good conducted by man can be broken down to simply applying man’s primary
function, rational thought, well and this forms the basis of what Aristotle
believes to be the best life for man.

However, the path of the
‘good-life’ is not easy. The individual must be exemplary in two fields of
virtue and continue to be exemplary for the remaining years of their life:
intellectual virtue and virtue of character. Like Plato, Aristotle believed the
way to achieve human flourishing was through knowledge and contemplation; the
ability to understand first principles of the universe and the mastery of
inference to yield results as to what comes about by applying these principles.
He strays from his mentor with regard to this second point as Aristotle was
more interested in applying this knowledge in the physical world and having a
physical impact on the people around him.  

With regard to the second virtue,
virtue of character Aristotle claims that contemplation alone is not enough to achieve
this. The person who leads the good life also acts justly and develops the
correct state of character. While the intelligent virtues are acquired through
learning, the virtues of character such as courage and pride are acquired as
the result of habituation. These occupy a middle ground between deficiency and
excess and are renowned as the ‘golden mean’ – the virtues that every man should
strive for, for the sake of kalon.
For example, with confidence being the golden mean, a virtuous man would not
come off as the extreme: arrogant, or the antithesis: timid. These qualities
are acquired over the course of habituation and Aristotle suggests exemplar
models should be used to encourage others to mimic and eventually grow into a
habit of doing the virtuous. Only when a person possesses all of these virtues,
of intellect and character, can man achieve Aristotle’s best life, eudaimonia.

However, certain external
conditions must be present to aid human flourishing of such virtues, certain
conditions which are often beyond the control of the individual such as the
right type of society. As previously stated, Aristotle’s ideal state was
created (1280a 31) “for the sake of the good life and not for the sake of mere
life.” This is why he believes his adjudicators should be masters of phronesis: the ability to discern between
virtue and vice (practical wisdom) but also have sufficient knowledge of both.
This will allow citizens to follow exemplary laws which through the result of
habit will become ingrained in their custom. Similarly, achieving eudaimonia is a continuous struggle which
must begin somewhere: “Happiness is an activity; and activity plainly comes
into being and is not present at the start like a piece of property” (1169b 30).
 As a result, to fully achieve the good life
individuals require the state to mould the ‘virtuous’ from the ‘vicious’.

In Book VII, Aristotle focuses on
what the best regime for a city would be regardless of its use in a practical
world and solely to achieve the best possible life for man: “the city that
is to be constituted on the basis of what one would pray for.” (1325b35)
He thought the best type of polis would be one which acted in the best
interests of its citizens and guide them on the path to virtuousness. Aristotle
incorporates a scale of morality, ranging from vicious to virtuous with two
things in common within every man on that scale: the ability to reason and the
ability to discern between good and bad. The polis must act as an agent to
guide vicious man to virtuous, passing incontinent and continent in between.
The vicious man derives pleasure from acting maliciously, and the incontinent
man has his desires satisfied, but is left feeling dissatisfied with himself
for his moments of weakness. The continent man however, possesses strength of
will but still acts rightly even when tempted with wrong; however, he too also
exhibits dissatisfaction for his desires. It is only when the polis can carry
you to a state of virtuousness that your desires and inclinations become
aligned. Laws of the polis encourage a state of habit which in time the
individual acquires a liking for this type of behaviour.

With reference to our ergon and arête as human beings it was evident that ‘man was a political
animal’ (Politics. 1.1253a) as he was
designed by God with the power of speech and reasoning.  Aristotle also concluded that the best life
for man couldn’t be reached without substantial participation in Politics.
Through logos it was concluded that
citizens must do more than mere office holding and those who wish to succeed
and flourish would master the art of rhetoric and persuasion. These men would
be the exemplary citizens to lead ‘audiences who are unable to take in complex,
or lengthy chains of argument.’  (1357a)
and guide them on the path to human flourishing.

Aristotle also accepts the notion
that human beings are incredibly social animals, in need of social contact to realise
their full potential. With this in mind the notion of philia(friendship) and good will, similar to philia but can be wished on strangers and need not be recognised,
play an integral role in the pursuit of happiness. Therefore, Aristotle divides
the virtue of friendship into a tripartite: useful friendship, pleasure
friendship and true friendship, each increasingly advantageous to a life of eudaimonia. Useful friendship will often
relate to what the other brings in return, a useful ergon, and a friendly interaction in which the two parties share a
common motive, but can generally stop being friendly when that common goal has
gone. This along with pleasure friendship has been criticised by Aristotle for
focusing on a means to an unsatisfactory end, for example money or bodily
pleasure. ‘…bad men will be friends for the sake of pleasure or of utility’
(NE, Book VIII: Chapter IV) He instead prescribes true friendship as the
ultimate means to satisfy our social nature. Friendship reliant on mutual respect
of character and mutual affection as ‘men do not become friends with those in
whom they do not delight’ (NE , Book VIII Chapter VI). A true friend is enjoyed
solely as the person that they are but can also be invaluable in usefulness and
pleasure.  Therefore, to lead the best
life a man can socially is to confide in true friends whom are enjoyed for
their character.

The majority of human achievement
is a means to an end, but the end is often misinterpreted for a means of
achieving something greater. We attend school, to get into university, to get a
degree, to get a job which in turn will provide us with a stable income of
capital to pursue human flourishing. Aristotle mentions that not all our
activities need be instrumental and in fact ‘not everything can be chosen for
the sake of something else, or the choosing would be without end – and our
desire would never be fulfilled, and be empty.’ (NE, 1094a 20) Therefore, it
would only make sense to assume that the ultimate end is the pursuit of
happiness.

To conclude, Aristotle’s best life
for man is the pursuit of eudaimonia or
happiness, this is achieved by obtaining mastery in two categories of virtue:
virtue of intellect and virtue of character. Although, proper adeptness can
only occur once properly facilitated by an ‘enabling’ state with exemplary role
models, perhaps politicians skilled in the way of rhetoric and persuasion, who
guide man to the highest degree of Aristotle’s moral scale: Virtuousness.
Aristotle’s reasoning behind this is based on an ancient belief in mankind
having a fixed social essence which can only be unlocked through performing
just and virtuous social interactions with other members of society. Similarly,
his function principle suggests an artefact only works best once suited perfectly
to its primary task, its ergon;
applying this to humans, Aristotle is justified in his claims that our ability
to reason, what makes us distinct from animals, is precisely the reason the
best life for man, his telos, should
be to focus on achieving eudaimonia.