Aristotle, Book II, Nicomachean Ethics

In Book II of the Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle discusses the nature of the virtues. I am rereading the book for something like the umpteenth time. Three excerpts left strong impressions on me, but first I would like to make some comments.

On Pleasure and Pain. The appeal of the first excerpt is that Aristotle makes room for pleasure and pain in ethical life. He makes a subtle argument, claiming that pleasure accompanies virtue but is not itself the aim of virtue. Hence, the virtuous man takes pleasure in performing virtuous deeds yet would not say that he is performing these deeds for the sake of pleasure.

By this argument, Aristotle does not fall into hedonism or Kantianism. Hedonists argue that the end of our actions is the maximization of pleasure or the avoidance of pain. Aristotle will have none of this, saying instead that the exercise of courage especially is not “essentially pleasant” (this from Book III, ix.5). In contradistinction, Kantians argue that what we ought to do is only contingently related (at best) to what we want to do. So, if my mother asks me to take out the trash, then doing what I should (fulfilling an obligation) is not doing what I want (playing video games, say).

I am inclined to think that, in the history of Western thought, Kantianism comes into being around the time that ethical life has broken down. To see this, consider a case in your own life in which ought and want are in conflict with each other. My wager is that something deep has already gone amiss with this relationship, this institution, this way of life.

On Practice. Aristotle claims that talking about virtue and being virtuous are analytically distinct. Hence, enrolling in a seminar on ethics (or metaethics) remains separate from exercising the virtue of courage in the face of danger. Aristotle is interested in the latter, as I am also.

On Liberality. We come now to the question of the mean, which is essentially a rule of thumb for action. The mean can be translated longwindedly as “doing the right thing in the right way for the reason for the right end.” Not a law, a rule, a procedure, a number, the mean carries the sense of ‘just right,’ as when someone acts with ‘just the right touch.’ In the case of liberality, it is a question of being generous enough: always a delicate matter to be sussed out in context and by means of good practice.

And now for the three excerpts. Enjoy.

Pleasure and Pain

An index of our dispositions is afforded by the pleasure or pain that accompanies our actions. A man is temperate if he abstains from bodily pleasures and finds this abstinence itself enjoyable, profligate if he feels it irksome; he is brave if he faces danger with pleasure or at all events without pain, cowardly if he does so with pain.

In fact pleasures and pains are the things with which moral virtue is concerned.

For (1) pleasure causes us to do base actions and pain causes us to abstain from doing noble actions. Hence the importance, as Plato points out, of having been definitely trained from childhood to like and dislike the proper things; this is what good education means.


Thus although actions are entitled just and temperate when they are such acts as just and temperate men would do, the agent is just and temperate not when he does these acts merely, but when he does them in the way in which just and temperate men do them. It is correct therefore to say that a man becomes just by doing just actions and temperate by doing temperate actions; and no one can have the remotest chance of becoming good without doing them. But the mass of mankind, instead of doing virtuous acts, have recourse to discussing virtue, and fancy that they are pursuing philosophy and that this will make them good men.

The Mean of Liberality

In regard to giving and getting money, the observance of the mean is Liberality; the excess and deficiency are Prodigality and Meanness, but the prodigal man and the mean man exceed and fall short in opposite ways to one another: the prodigal exceeds in giving and is deficient in getting, whereas the mean man exceeds in getting and is deficient in giving.

When Lois came to stay

From Monday evening to Thursday afternoon, Lois came to stay with us. She keeps her things–fresh linens, washed towels, extra toiletries–stored in two boxes in the back of the unused closet in David’s old study. She brings three bags, as well as a large purse, with her. Joan tells me she went through a box of tissues in the past three days and that she normally takes two hours to get ready in the morning and another two hours to get ready for bed.

Lois is twice widowed. Both men were wealthy, and both left her with almost nothing. She now lives in a small apartment in the East Hamptons. In town, she takes taxis and medicine; she comes to stay with Joan in order to see her doctors and Bergman Dorfman. She lives with one of her daughters who does something with computers. The daughter goes through phases, is up and down, takes medicine like her mother. All of her children–all two, possibly three–were raised to make money.

Joan can’t easily abide Lois, except that Lois is an old friend whose second husband was a dear. That man was charming, a good dancer when they used to have dances (“balls,” I think) in the house on the day before New Year’s Eve. When Lois calls her up, Joan asks herself whether she can be generous this time, and, as usual, she can. Joan is generous, making supper for Andy most nights and, on Wednesdays, for Christopher and for all three the past couple nights, the guest diner being petite, careworn, and especially particular. By the time Lois gets onto the express bus, Joan is exhausted.

Lois has no money but takes taxis around town. She has a son who became rich through investing, retired at age 40, married a young woman who spends his money, spends his time playing golf and traveling abroad, and can’t stand his mother. Lois was once, or so I imagine, a fixture in Society, but now she needs to have some kind of ankle surgery. Her left eye tears up all day (“because she’s sad,” I asked. Apparently not.), and her back hurts, Joan thinks, because of her large purse.

I tell Joan that Lois appears self-conflicted and sad. Lois hasn’t sold a house in over a year and, about a year ago, she was laid off from her real estate job. She  has thin blond hair, bought lactose-free milk that now sits by itself in the bottom of the refrigerator, and drank a quarter cup before she left yesterday afternoon. She is 77 years old and friendless save for Joan.

Yesterday around noon, Lois and Joan and I all loitered about in the kitchen, reading different sections of the paper by the meager overhead lights. I stood by the sink, leaning back against the counter, while the two women sat and read by the window. Outside, it was raining hard enough to darken the trees but not hard enough to stop the birds from singing. I was skimming an Op-Ed about the ailing Philadelphia newspapers while Joan read to us aloud about layoffs, sculptures, still lives, those sorts of things. Somehow, we got to talking about Joan’s daughter-in-law Susan, who’s very tall and looks her best when her hair is up, and then about Chris and his lifelong heavyset partner Jean. “A pair of pears,” I said. Lois and I smiled. Still life.

Further Reading

Andrew Taggart, “At Home with Joan”