Nicomachean Ethics - Aristotle
Book 2: Moral virtue
Moral virtues are close to what we would call virtues today. Aristotle lists the following
as moral virtues
: courage, temperance (moderation), liberality (moderation in giving
and taking money), magnificence (correctly dealing with great wealth or power),
pride (claiming what is due to you), gentleness (moderation with respect to anger),
agreeableness, truthfulness, and wit.
Shame is also given some attention, although
Aristotle specifically states that shame is
The Golden Mean
Aristotle’s doctrine of the mean consists of three pillars that work together to form a
First, there is a sort of equilibrium that the good person is in. This is related to a
medical idea that a healthy person is in a balanced state.
For example, one’s body
temperature is neither too high nor too low. Related to ethics, one’s character does not go
to extremes. For example, one does not overreact to situations, but rather keeps his
Equilibrium is the right feelings at the right time about the right things,
toward the right people, for the right end, and in the right way.
The second pillar states that the mean we should strive for is relative to us.
intermediate of an object is unchanging; if twelve is excess and four is deficiency, then
roughly eight is the intermediate in that object. Aristotle proposes something different for
finding an intermediate relative to oneself. Aristotle’s ethics are not a one-size-fits-all
system; what he is looking for is the mean that is good for a particular individual. For
example, watering a small plant with a gallon of water is excessive but watering a tree
with a gallon of water is deficient. This is because different plants have different needs
for water intake and if the requirements for each plant are not met, the plant will die from
root rot (excess) or dehydration (deficiency).
The third pillar is that each virtue falls between two vices.
Virtue is like the mean
because it is the intermediate between two vices. On this model a triad is formed with one
vice on either end (excess or deficiency) and the virtue as the intermediate. If one’s
character is too near either vice, then the person will incur blame but if one’s character is
near the intermediate, the person deserves praise. Proper participation in each of these
three pillars is necessary for a person to lead a virtuous and therefore happy life.
As stated in the inscription at the temple at the Oracle at Delphi, a person should do
nothing to excess. The inscription should have also included the words, "find the mean."
Temperance is the virtue that is the mean in order to control emotions, courage is the
mean when seeking honor, and wisdom is the mean when seeking knowledge.
A general must seek to find courage, the mean between cowardice and foolhardiness, in