Virtue is the key to a meaningful and happy life. According to ancient philosophers, Socrates and Aristotle, developing virtue is vital in order to lead a successful, fulfilling life. Though both men differ in their interpretations of a “good life,” they both agree that the supreme life is one of virtuous meaning. Each of the philosophers have devised and implemented their own definitions and guidelines to acquire and practice a virtuous disposition. While it is agreed that knowledge and practice are the key to virtuosity, the philosophers disagree on fundamental rules to follow.
The inherent question to be explored concerns the idea of virtue; what is it and how does one acquire it? The answer is anything but simple, but a blend of both philosophies can shed light on the two men’s view on practicing a virtuous life. Socrates and Aristotle believe in distinct ends to a common mean. According to Socrates, there are common practices and contracts people enter into in order to live in a society.
A good life is inherently virtuous and, according to Socrates, there are certain rules to follow in order to attain virtuosity.
Socrates believed that virtue was knowledge. His mission was to encourage people to think for themselves and thus become more virtuous. One example of Socrates devotion to rules and regulations is cited in the Crito. Socrates’ word choice including words such as “never” and “always,” suggest stern, unbreakable rules. “It is never right to commit injustice or return injustice” (Plato 89). In Athens, Socrates believes, the laws reign supreme and according to the law, Socrates was justifiably guilty.
Socrates was sentenced to death based on a conviction of a court upheld by the laws. The finality of the decision of the laws vis-a-vis the court became the final answer regarding Socrates guilt and impending death. When a comrade of Socrates came to visit him in prison with the hope of convincing him to run away, Socrates stood firm in his beliefs in the justice of the laws of the land. “Both in war and in the law courts and everywhere else you must do whatever your city and your country commands, or else persuade it that justice is on your side” (Plato 91).
Socrates is firm in his belief of the inherent goodness of the law and he cannot justifiably turn his back on the rules that he had previously based his life upon. Although Aristotle is found to agree with Socrates on the concept of five fundamental virtues and the importance of leading a virtuous life to be happy, when it comes to precise rules in ethics he believes they do not exist. While rules were meant to apply to a world of “black and whites,” Aristotle saw the world in shades of gray; extenuating circumstances and intent force Aristotle to review each and every situation individually before he can adequately define one as virtuous.
Aristotle would argue with Socrates’ reasoning in the Crito acknowledging that there are no precise rules in ethics. While the rules leave guidelines for particular circumstances, not everything is clearly defined by the law. Due to these confounding variables, Aristotle chooses not to promote definite laws but guidelines to follow when examining a particular situation on a case-by-case basis. Aristotle’s belief that virtue cannot be taught in a classroom is derived from his belief that it is a practiced skill.
He believed in examining all extenuating circumstances to decide if an act was part of a virtuous disposition. Both men believe in the importance of a virtuous life for happier citizens and a thriving polis, but they take different approaches in educating the masses. While Socrates begins to question everyone who believes they know anything, Aristotle rules out anyone who is not a member of the ruling class. The two men emphasize necessity for a virtuous life, but Socrates encourages people to think for themselves. He believes people who embrace their own knowledge will become more virtuous.
Aristotle caters only to the elite, believing they are the only people in society with the knowledge and ability to practice a virtuous life. While Socrates encourages people to become more virtuous by acquiring knowledge, Aristotle simply explains how to become more virtuous to those who are already on the “right path. ” A virtuous life is a life worth living. Aristotle compiled ten different books in a step-by-step format to instruct elite young men in leading virtuous lives. The instructions begin with and emphasis on “the good for man.
” In this first book, Aristotle introduces the desire to live a happy and therefore, virtuous life. According to Aristotle, “All human activities aim at some good” (Aristotle 1). This means that all activities humans perform are means to a certain end. This is the foundation for Aristotle’s arguments. He determines to define the ultimate end and determine the right way to approach it. Aristotle’s belief is that most actions are done for another reason than just purely to perform the act itself. For example, a chef prepares a meal to eat it if he is hungry.
He does not cook the meal merely to cook, but to satisfy his hunger. Based on this line of reasoning, Aristotle comes to the conclusion that the ultimate desire of man is happiness. “Happiness on the other hand, no one chooses for the sake of these, or, in general, for anything other than itself? Happiness, then, is something final and self-sufficient, and is the end of action” (Aristotle 12). Happiness is the ultimate end for Aristotle, and the remaining nine books proceed to instruct the reader in life lessons regarding a happy life achieved through virtue.
Throughout Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle makes the argument that virtue is a mean between two vices. “Virtue is a mean, with regard to what is best and right an extreme. ” For example, if the two extremes were black and white, the mean or virtue would lie somewhere in the gray area of the spectrum. The mean, however, does not always lie directly in the center of the two extremes. Courage would lie in the gray area between the extremes of cowardice and rashness. However, because it is comparable to rashness, it would lie closer to that extreme than directly in the center.
Aristotle’s argument equating virtues to means suggests to the reader that rational thought is required in each and every situation to determine the true meaning and ethical value of the circumstances. “Moral virtue comes about as a result of habit” (Aristotle 29). Although Aristotle makes it clear that there are no precise rules, habit and practice seemed to be fundamental in leading a virtuous life. Both Socrates and Aristotle agree that one must approach a life of virtue through knowledge and practice. Socrates maintains that rules are a necessary guideline to truly define what is virtuous and good.
Definitions and rules do not apply to Aristotle’s path to virtue. However, the two men share the belief that virtue is necessary to achieve a happy and meaningful life, but their opinions differ on the correct path to approaching virtue. While Socrates is more conservative in his values, never straining from the words of the law, Aristotle believes in examining each and every situation and making an intelligent rational decision based on extenuating circumstances. Although their end is the same, their paths and reasons for attaining a good life seem to differ.
According to Socrates, a virtuous man is a good man and “nothing can hard can harm a good man either in life or after death, and his fortunes are not a matter of indifference to the Gods” (Plato 70). This statement suggests that the benefit of attaining a good and virtuous life will lead to a pay off by the Gods once the virtuous person has left this earth. Although a good person can be physically harmed in the physical life, true harm comes in the form of a life without meaning. According to Socrates reasoning, a virtuous life is worth living because the Gods will smile upon you and bless your current life as well as your after life.
A virtuous life is a life with meaning to be honored and remembered for the blessings it bestowed upon the people that knew that person. The desire to remain immortal spiritually drives people to live a good life. This drive to live a virtuous life parallels Aristotle’s stance on a virtuous life bringing happiness to the virtuous person, simply by performing virtuous tasks. According to Aristotle, “the philosopher, even when by himself, can contemplate truth, and the better the wiser he is? And this activity alone would seem to be loved for its own sake” (Aristotle 264).
To be a virtuous person is to appease your own desires by helping and leading a good life for others to follow. It is clear that Aristotle believes only the elite class has the ability and desire and is capable of leading a virtuous life. The path to virtue through knowledge and practice however, is a universal path to goodness. The notion that only an elite member of society can attain a virtuous life is an archaic idea. Aristotle believed only the aristocrats had the potential to be virtuous and all other people were just commoners.
Aristotle’s path to a virtuous life is admirable and attainable, but to suggest that only the elite are capable of a virtuous life is contradictory to the foundation of a virtuous life to begin with. Aristotle begins to give instructions on living a virtuous life for the purpose of bettering society by improving ones soul. His elitist attitude and exclusive instructions to the aristocratic class only serves to further separate the “elite” from the commoners. This separation creates tension between the classes and tension leads to civil unrest.
This tension is contradictory to the harmonious society that is supposedly gained by an increase in virtuous citizens. By catering specifically to the elite members of society and excluding the masses, Aristotle is hindering the process of creating an ideal society filled with virtuous citizens. Aristotle and Socrates both have similar ideals and motivations; both are pure in heart and truly believe in what they are teaching about virtue. When the two theories merge they become a series of ideal principles to live a virtuous life. Both men emphasize the importance of knowledge and truth in order to become a virtuous person.
Socrates, however, rests almost entirely upon the foundation of laws and regulations to determine the virtue of ones actions. This is a reasonable belief in theory but in practice there are too many variables to define every action as just or virtuous. It is with this understanding that Aristotle stated the lack of definite rules applying to ethics. Without a universal definition, one needed to use the knowledge they obtained habitually to define himself or herself as a virtuous person. Their own knowledge, paired with the recommended action advised by the laws of the land would lead the person in question to make the right decision.
Both men share a devotion to knowledge and habit. A compilation of Socrates dedication to laws and Aristotle’s insistence upon practice require one to consult the laws of the land and their personal instincts in order to be one step further to a virtuous life. The distinctions discussed previously can be rectified and compiled into a series of guidelines for the universal person to achieve a virtuous life. Bibliography Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998. Plato. The Last Days of Socrates. London: Penguin Books, 2003.
Cite this essay
Virtue: Ethics and Virtuous Life. (2016, Dec 13). Retrieved from https://studymoose.com/virtue-ethics-and-virtuous-life-essay