Book 2, Chapter 1. Aristotle outlines two sorts of virtue—virtue of thought and virtue of character. The first arises mostly from teaching and requires experience and time to mature. The second results from habit.
None of the virtues of character arise naturally. We’re naturally able to acquire them, and they are completed in us by way of habit. Aristotle explains that virtues are acquired in much the same way as crafts are: “we become builders, for instance, by building, and we become harpists by playing the harp.” Similarly, one becomes just or temperate by acting in a way that is just or temperate.
Virtues aren’t natural to people, but must be nurtured through practice. One learns a craft by doing it and practicing it; the same holds true for acquiring virtues.
This is true collectively as well as individually. Legislators make citizens good by acclimating them to good behavior, and “correct habituation distinguishes a good political system from a bad one.”
As he often does throughout the Ethics, Aristotle repeats the point that what holds true for individuals is also applicable to societies. Political systems, in his view, serve the purpose of acclimating people to virtuous behavior, much as practice helps an individual acquire virtues.
At the same time, the same things that develop a craft or a virtue can also destroy it. For example, bad harp-playing makes a bad harpist, and bad building makes a bad builder. That’s why a teacher is needed—to ensure we’re performing activities in the right way. In the exercise of virtues, too, the repetition of similar activities (habituation) rests upon and reinforces a state of character. So, then, performing activities rightly is very important, from one’s youth onward.
Simply performing an activity mechanically doesn’t cause someone to become adept in that activity. Just as a teacher is needed to guide the proper practice of a craft, so the correct state is needed—not the activity alone—to ensure that activities are being rightly performed throughout one’s life.
Book 2, Chapter 2. Since the object of Aristotle’s inquiry is to become good, it’s necessary to consider the correct ways of acting, since these result in the states we acquire. First, “actions should accord with the correct reason.”
Hearkening back to the definition of the function of the human being—the activity of the soul in accordance with reason—Aristotle begins to break down the constituent parts of virtue.
States “tend to be ruined by excess and deficiency.” For instance, “excessive and deficient exercise ruin bodily strength […] whereas the proportionate amount produces, increases, and preserves it.” The same is true of the virtues. If someone is afraid of everything, he becomes cowardly; if that person is afraid of nothing, he becomes rash. Virtues “are ruined by excess and deficiency, but preserved by the mean.”
Book 2, Chapter 3. Aristotle argues that someone’s pleasure or pain following an action gives an indication of that person’s state. For example, if someone enjoys abstaining from pleasures, he’s moderate and levelheaded; if he’s grieved by it, he’s overindulgent. Pleasure can cause a person to do vulgar or corrupt actions, and pain causes a person to abstain from fine actions. Aristotle cites Plato’s argument that the key to finding pleasure or pain in the right things is having had the right upbringing.
For Aristotle, pleasure and pain serve as indicators of a person’s state, or disposition. But responding to pleasure and pain in virtuous ways—acting or abstaining according to what is base or fine—is something that requires training from one’s youth.
Book 2, Chapter 4. Aristotle admits that his comparison between crafts and virtues doesn’t hold in every way. For example, it’s not enough that action in accordance with the virtues be done; the person who does the action must also be in the right state at the time—having decided to act accordingly and done the action “from a firm and unchanging state.” By contrast, when someone is making something, the product is the only thing that matters.
Aristotle’s point here is that, in contrast to making something, where the end product is all that matters, simply performing a virtuous act is not enough—it must be performed in a virtuous way. Recall that a state is a disposition formed by habitual action, so if a person is in a virtuous state, it means that they’ve repeatedly practiced being virtuous, and now it is a part of their character. In other words, rather than merely going through the motions of committing virtuous actions, one must also be virtuous.
Book 2, Chapter 5. Aristotle further examines what virtue is. He says there are “three conditions arising in the soul”—feelings, capacities, and states—and that virtue must be one of these. Feelings are things that have elements of both pleasure and pain, like appetite, anger, fear, and love. Capacities are “what we have when we are said to be capable of these feelings.” States are “what we have when we are well or badly off in relation to feelings.”
Aristotle considers three conditions in the soul. While feelings and capacities are fairly self-explanatory, a “state” is a condition whereby something is done well or poorly in relation to feelings. For example, if we experience intense anger, we’re badly off in relation to that feeling, but if our anger is intermediate, then we’re well off.
Neither virtues nor vices are feelings, then, says Aristotle. For example, we’re praised or blamed for having virtues—having feelings in a particular way—not for simply having feelings. And we can’t decide to have feelings, but virtues require decision. For the same reason, virtues can’t be capacities, either—and no one is praised for being capable of feelings. Because virtues are neither feelings nor capacities, then, virtues must be states.
Aristotle argues that nobody is praised or blamed just for having feelings, or for having the capacity to feel things. Furthermore, while feelings and capacities are basically beyond human control, virtues are intentional—so they must be categorized under the remaining condition of the soul: states.
Book 2, Chapter 6. Having established that virtue is a state, then, we have to inquire what sort of state it is. Every virtue causes the person who has it “to be in a good state and to perform their functions well.”
To some degree, states and virtues appear to be mutually reinforcing for Aristotle. States enable the performance of virtues, and virtues also create states whereby people perform their functions as they should.
Another aspect of the nature of virtue is that it’s “neither superfluous nor deficient.” Every branch of science “produces its products well, by focusing on what is intermediate” in this way. When it comes to virtues of character, seeking the intermediate state—or “mean”—involves “having these feelings at the right times, about the right things, toward the right people, for the right end, and in the right way.” Thus virtue “is a mean, insofar as it aims at what is intermediate.” Excess and deficiency, on the other hand, are vices. Aristotle names various examples of virtues which he’ll define with greater specificity in Book III.
Aristotle comes to a key component of his teaching on virtue—that virtue must aim at the intermediate state, or mean, between extremes of excess and deficiency. Again, mere action isn’t sufficient; actions must be performed in a certain way in order to qualify as virtuous. Aristotle adds that not every action has a “mean”—it’s not possible to commit adultery, for example, with the right person, for the right end, or in the right way. Such an action is itself “base” and can never be virtuous.
Book 2, Chapters 7-8. Aristotle illustrates the mean through an example of the overly confident person versus the overly fearful person. On one end of the extreme is the “excessively confident” person, who makes stupid decisions because they fear nothing. On the other hand, the person who is “excessive in fear” is a “coward.” The mean that rests between extreme confidence and extreme fear is bravery.
In this passage, Aristotle highlights how the mean doesn’t necessarily mean a behavior that is moderate—it’s more like the right behavior or course of action in between two extremes.
Book 2, Chapter 9. Aristotle concludes Book II by saying that, in light of what’s been discussed, it’s “hard work to be excellent.” It’s hard to determine the mean in a given case. Since one extreme is generally worse than the other, it’s best to aim for “the lesser of the evils.” It’s also necessary to determine which extreme one tends to drift into more naturally, excess or deficiency. And since all people are naturally inclined toward pleasure, it’s good to be wary of “pleasure and its sources.”
Aristotle acknowledges again that making virtuous decisions doesn’t come naturally. Determining the mean, or middle ground, in a given situation requires discernment and self-awareness. As he warned earlier, there is no clear-cut method for becoming virtuous—just guidelines that must be thoughtfully engaged rather than mechanically followed.