Plato and Aristotle on Ethics and Virtue
Published 14 Feb 2017
The field of ethics is described as ‘first philosophy’ by some philosophers. At other times, ethics rests among the three branches of philosophy alongside epistemology and metaphysics. As with most philosophical problems, one can find at least some treatment of the subject in the work of Plato and Aristotle. Though there is a continuous lineage from Socrates through Plato to Aristotle there are differences that arise between them. These differences are more than natural developments in which one philosopher seeks to tether up the ramifications of their intellectual ancestor.
Rather, there is a qualitative change from philosopher to philosopher. Yet in the absence of a written lineage, Socrates gives us no ground to set up a detailed contrast between his and Plato’s views. Rather, our image of Socrates’ thought is constructed backwardly or ad hoc, mainly from the accounts of Plato and Xenophon. When it comes to Plato and Aristotle, however, we have a great selection of material to compare and graph the influence of these contemporaries on each other. Here we will draw on selected dialogues of Plato and Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. After stating their respective perspectives, the contrasts between the two will be evident and some synthesising and concluding comments can be made.
The dialogical form of most of Plato’s writing produces numerous effects. Firstly, we are given a dialectical approach that observes multiple facets of an argument at once. Secondly, we are often left with an open-ended result to the inquiry. And, by virtue of this, we are led to think through the problems presented to us. That said, it is also true that the dialogues were often unbalanced between unequal parties: Socrates pairing off against an unwitting sophist or passer-by.
Within the form of dialogues there are multiple themes and motifs that present themselves as Plato’s views. These persist throughout the dialogical format. Plato’s views on ethics and virtue are scattered throughout his corpus as a recurring concern. A selection of examples will be harvested from the major dialogues of Plato in order to yield a thorough and sustained treatment on the topic.
In the Meno, Plato, through the mouthpiece of Socrates, inquires as to whether or not virtue can be taught. The general argument follows as such: Socrates (the character) suggests that virtue must be a constant thing though it has various manifestations. He questions Meno as to what the essence of virtue is. Throughout the dialogue, Meno gives examples of particular virtues:justice, courage, temperance, wisdom and others, rather than the essence of virtue (Plato, 1999). This follows in an extended process that, in Meno’s perspective, leads to a sort of numbing. At this point, Meno backs the question up and brings to fore the classical paradox that, if we do not know what we are looking for we will not be able to recognise it even upon seeing it. Socrates then espouses the well-known Platonic position that all knowledge is really just a form of recollection or anamneisis, “for as all nature is akin, and the soul has learned all things; there is no difficulty in her eliciting or as men say learning, out of a single recollection all the rest” (Plato, 1999). Socrates then narrows the question to whether or not virtue is a sort of knowledge. Socrates states that since virtue works only in tandem with wisdom, that it does not occur ‘naturally’. As such, it cannot simply be knowledge. The discussion is then refocused on the question of whether or not virtue can be taught. If so, Socrates proposes, virtue must have teachers. Socrates gives the tongue-in-cheek example of the sophists. This caste had long profited by scandalously pawning pedantic maxims.
The issue of whether virtue could be taught hinged on the status of who could teach virtue. Yet, since everyone who claimed to teach virtue was confused on the issue, (at least after meeting Socrates) virtue must be unteachable. However, the volitionism of Socrates comes through in this dialogue suggesting that there must be some sort of knowing the goes hand in hand with right action. A clear example is in the words of the Socratic character: “And do you really imagine, Meno, that a man knows evils to be evils and desires them notwithstanding?” (Plato, 1999). This question is ironic, if not rhetorical in tone and suggest a sort of knowledge that is paired with virtue. The conclusion of the Meno is ironic as virtue can be sullied, according to the accuser’s of Socrates. He was that culture’s scapegoat for the ‘corruption of youth’ in the Apology.
The Euthyphro engages the question of what is it that makes things good. Euthyphro (the character) suggests that it is the gods who determine what is good. Socrates counters that the gods are in discord on the matter and, as such, they could not provide a steady guide (Plato, 1993, p.13 Euthyphro). Socrates suggests that men, just as much as gods can posit that wrong ought to be punished. The tricky part in linking divine command with morality is in determining the chronology. Does the command precede the conception of good or vice versa. Socrates also shows himself to be a volitionist at this point, believing right knowledge will lead to right action. The Euthyphro gives no closure on what it is that makes virtue holy. Or, even if the gods command according to good or decide the good by their command.
In any case, the constant portrait is drawn that virtue is a demand of life, “to live well amounts to the same thing as to live honourably and justly” (Ibid, p. 83, Crito). The character of Socrates bore this belief with a vital commitment. It was for this reason that he engaged in the discussions which he dubbed philosophy. After he is sentenced to death he confirms this commitment issuing the following request to his friends: “When my sons grow up, gentlemen, if you think that they are putting money or anything else before goodness, take your revenge by plaguing them as I plagued you” (Ibid, p. 67, Apology). This unwavering commitment has sealed the Socratic example in the annals of history which has lasted even to this day.
Aristotle has a more systematic approach in his writings. He produces treatises which are more likely to yield positive conclusions. Furthermore, his works are lengthy enough to exhaustively treat his subject matter. There are two works dubbed ‘Ethics’ the former, called Eudemian Ethics and the latter, on which we shall draw, called Nicomachean Ethics named after his son who edited the work (Aristotle, 1980, p. v). Herein the latter text will be referred to simply as the Ethics.
Virtue, for Aristotle was of a very different breed that for Plato. Firstly, virtue was not a singular entity (as Socrates insists in the Meno, but rather there are very divergent forms of virtue. Virtue, for Aristotle happens only at the rational level. The prceding levels of having a soul are only vegetable (by which he means biotic) or animal (by which he means sensory). Man alone has the place as the ‘rational animal.’ And this leads to happiness. This could even be derived from the classic difference between Plato and Aristotle on universals in general. For Plato the universals or ‘eidos’ preceded the particulars. Conversely, for Aristotle, universals were discerned by the examples of a large group of particulars. Secondly, the good is not seen as good only in itself, but in that it leads to happiness.
In the Ethics, Aristotle bifurcates virtue into two types of excellence, intellectual and moral. Aristotle describes moral virtue as a state of character rather than a passion or faculty (Ibid, p. 35-36). The virtuous character state is a deeply rooted disposition of a person toward the good. Aristotle notes that virtue does not come under compulsion; rather, it is the free action of virtue that warrants its praise (Ibid, p. 48). Furthermore, the choice cannot be an arbitrary choice made spontaneously. Rather, the account for virtuous action must be discerned at an earlier time, in order for an action to qualify as virtuous (Ibid, p. 55). It is here we see a sharp contrast with Platonic ethics which is concerned with virtue qua virtue. Aristotle emphasizes a necessity of pairing thought with praxis. Aristotle, in his love for organization describes many sorts of virtue. Yet they all follow the same rule of thumb, moderation or the ‘virtue intermediate’ (Ibid 95). Some would say he takes moderation too far, it guides everything!
There is a second principle that shapes right action. It must be noted that, for Aristotle, ethics had to do with ‘the good life’ conceived holistically. Aristotle was a thinker who was, as is well known, well within the camp of eudemonic thinkers. As such, the virtue of a person was reflected in their degree of true happiness.
Both thinkers, however, share a deep commitment to the pursuit of the good and to the explication of the essence and content of virtue. While Plato was concerned with the ideal construction of virtue, as it is, Aristotle seemed to emphasize the process of deliberation and deliberate action. Aristotle clearly abandoned the Platonic position as shown in the Meno. Virtue could be taught and learned; there is no necessary intercession from another realm to allow one’s recollection of the good, but simply good old down-to-earth philosophic contemplation. Yet for all that, Aristotle held the training and praxis of a virtuous life foremost.
- Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics. Trans: David Ross. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1980.
- All dialogues save Meno were taken from: Plato. The Last Days of Socrates. Trans. Hugh Tredennick and Harold Tarrant. New York: Penguin Books, 1993.
- Plato. Meno. Trans. Benjamin Jowett.