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Some remarks on the concept of aret in Aristotle

Emilio Mordini - Psychoanalytic Institute for Social Research Rome
Virtue Ethics and Chronic Illness Project - Working paper
(for internal purposes not to be diffused)

This paper will focus on some features of the notion of virtue in Aristotles ethics: it aims at giving some
practical keys to reading Aristotle on the subject of virtues. It lies beyond the purposes of this paper both to
give a general account of Aristotles ethics and to compare Aristotelian perspective with contemporary virtue
We shall first give a general picture of the cultural context in which Aristotles account on virtues should be
collocated. Then, we shall discuss a few peculiar aspects of his definition of virtues, in particular those
connected with his cultural background that could be more easily misunderstood by contemporary scholars.

1. Historical Background and Cultural Context

Discussing the concept of virtue in Aristotle requires a preliminary clarification of the meaning of the word
virtue in classic Greece. Aret (is the Greek word that is usually translated as virtue. Yet aret
had a semantic space different from the word virtue. The modern word virtue, which is present in many
languages (e.g., English, Italian, and French), means any quality that renders its possessor better. This
word directly derives from the Latin virtus. Virtus, coming from the root vir (man), originally pointed out
those qualities that make a man excellent, i.e., virile qualities. The meaning of aret is rather different.
The Greek word aret comes from the prefix ari, which is a general Greek prefix used to mean strength,
superiority, success. Aret is thus the quality of succeeding in doing something. Aret is a word that
eminently regards the public and political sphere, while in modern languages the word virtue is more often
concerned with the private realm. The word can be already found in Homer (even if it is not very frequent: it
is found only 38 times in his poems; while, for instance in Pindar, it is found 66 times). Analysing the
frequency of the word, it is noteworthy that it is particularly used by philosophers (Plato, Aristotle,
Xenophon), historians (Herodotus, Thucydides, Flavius Josephus, Pausania, Plutarch) , and orators
(Demosthenes, Isocrates, Lysias), while it is rarer in tragedy, poetry, and drama (Liddell Scott Jones:
Lexicon of Classical Greek - The Perseus Project, , January, 2000).
Homer uses aret to mean goodness, excellence (Il 20.411), which may concern both human and gods (Il.
9.498), and both men and women (Od.2.206). In Homers poems, aret is never used to point out moral
qualities, but it means nobility, skill, ability. With Homer, possessing aret means to be, at a perfect stage,
what one is. Through experience, become what you are tells us Pindar, and this maxim well expresses the
sense of aret even in Homer (for instance, see Il 11.404-410). The verb that corresponds to the noun aret
is aretan, which means to flourish, to prosper, to achieve success. Through aret the noble man reaches the
ideal of his category of men, meanwhile he distinguishes himself from his peers. The degree of aret is
both the criterion according to which the individual accepts to be judged by his community, and the
criterion he uses to differentiate himself (Snell B, 1963, Die Entdeckung des Geistes. Studien zur
entstehung des europaschen Denkens hei den Griechen. Hamburg:Classic Verlag). The community
rewards the individual according to his aret giving him tim, honour. Amongst mortals, tim and kleos
(honour and glory) are the values that aret allows one to achieve (wonders and miracles were instead
gods aret).

Why are tim and kleos so important for Homeric man? Greeks were painfully conscious of the mortal
condition (as attested by the fact that, in Greek culture, the main division between living beings is between
mortal and immortal beings). Tim and kleos are the sole form of immortality granted to mortals. Thus,
aspiration for aret goes far beyond aspiration for utility and happiness (which can obviously be both a
consequence of the excellence achieved), but it aims at a bigger game, at something that transcends
mortal individuals: immortal glory - kleos aphthiton - rooted in the communitys memory. Obviously human
beings can desire to possess aret for egoistic reasons too, but the community gives this aspiration a value
that overcomes the individual search for happiness. The search for aret always has universal value in the
Homeric man, and any distinction between egoism and altruism becomes meaningless. What does the
community require of me? How can I participate in universality, in eternity? In the first Greek civilisation, the
search for aret answers these questions.
The crisis of Homeric aristocratic society led to a crisis of the concept of aret. The end of aristocratic
universalism, with its definition of aret, gave birth to the discussion on virtues, aretai. The Homeric idea
of aret had already in itself the possibility to differentiate: distinct human groups, diverse communities, and
social classes may have, indeed, different kinds of excellence, and the aristocratic ideal, embodied by
Homers heroes, could not fit all human beings. As a result, in the Greece of 5 th century b.C., the debate
was not about virtue but about virtues, that is to say that there was an awareness that one can reach
aret through different routes, and that aret is different in different professions, and in different social
groups. Yet the crisis of the universal definition of virtue does not imply renouncing the search for something
lasting over time. If the communitys memory is no longer a form of immortality (because there is no longer a
strict coincidence between individual and community values), how can a man achieve something lasting?
This quest remains central to the Greek reflection on virtue. The richness of this reflection is attested to by
the various different meanings that the word aret takes in the post-Homeric language: excellence (Pindar,
Bacchylides, Plato, Aristotle), moral virtue (Demosthenes, Xenophon, Plato, Aristotle), kindness (Plato),
merit (Thucydides, Xenophon, Demosthenes), distinction, fame (Plato, Pindar, Lysia, Euripides). Yet it is
worth noting that the word continues to belong more to a theological-political realm (theology and politics
are very close in ancient Greece: one belongs to a polis as he belongs to a cult; for example Socrates was
prosecuted with the very accusation of having introduced new gods to the city) rather than to the moral one.
Aret is the main, or perhaps the sole, way of achieving immortality, either aret coincides with the State
(e.g., Tirteus), or with justice (e.g., Solon), or with wisdom (e.g., Xenophon).
Socrates is the turning point of this debate. While pre-Socratic philosophers moved from an ontologic
perspective, assuming that achieving the aret meant to following the universal (see: Heraclitus Fr.72, D.K.),
in Socrates account aret is simply identified with what enables a person to live well. Yet Socrates point is
that one cannot define the aret if one does not know what living well means, that is to say that defining
the aret requires a prior definition of the good life. It leads to the well known Socrates paradox according
to which nobody ever does wrong knowingly, and that anyone who knows the truth about the good life is
consequently virtuous. Platos view on virtues is congruent with that of Socrates. For Plato aret is an inner
state, it is harmony, health, beauty, the correspondence between the individual and a supra-individual good:
according to Plato the criteria for establishing the definition of virtue is neither the community nor a single
individual, but God. Aristotles ethics is instead an attempt to solve Socrates paradox without resorting to
what we may call metaphysical assumptions. Aristotle aims at grounding his teaching on science, on
knowledge of facts: in the beginning there is the fact - ark to oti as he says in Nicomachean Ethics

2. Aristotle on virtue
According to the traditional account - which has been, however, criticised - Aristotles ethics develops over
time and scholars usually distinguish between Eudemian Ethics (EE), which would be closer to Platos
philosophy, and Nicomachean Ethics (NE), which would represent the point of arrival of his ethical reflection.
Yet as far as his view on virtues is concerned, Aristotle is rather constant. Aristotle follows Socrates in

considering that aret is what enables a person to live well, but he breaks with him when he defines aret
what enables a person to function well, rather than simply to live well. The idea of functioning moves
Aristotles perspective from the ethical realm to the scientific one. Aristotles work is a scientific (almost
biological) investigation on those traits that may allow a human to function at his highest level: what makes
one function well, also makes one, he assumes, live better:
Every virtue causes its possessors to be in a good state and to perform their function well [] If
this is true in every case, the virtue of a human being will likewise be the state that makes a human
being good and makes him perform his function well (NE.II. 6).
According to his way to classify, Aristotle defines virtue as:
1) a disposition (genus proximus): NE. II. 4
2) a mean (specific difference): NE.II.5
Aristotle distinguishes between those aretai that concern emotional functioning and that render morally
better (ethical virtues) and those that concern the rational functioning and that render intellectually better
(dianoethics virtues). Intellectual virtues owe their birth and growth to teaching, whereas moral virtues are
habits that are acquired by practice and training: this is the main distinction between the two (and here one
can see well as Aristotles perspective is mainly descriptive, and his intentions are mostly practical).
Aristotle lists five intellectual virtues: art (techne), science (episteme), practical wisdom (phronesis), wisdom
(sophia), and reason (nous). He also lists various ethical virtues: courage (andreia), temperance
(sophrosyne), generosity (eleutheria), magnanimity (megalopsychia), justice (dikaiosyne), to which he adds
other virtues relevant in social life, including sincerity, lovability, friendship, feeling of modesty (which he
actually does not recognise as a virtue), etc. Reading Aristotle it is not often so simple to differentiate the
catalogue of virtues: a pivotal doctrine in Aristotles theory on virtues is, indeed, the unity of the virtues, that
is to say that each virtue requires that one be sensitive to potentially inconsistent claims deriving from the
other virtues, so that in the end one cannot really possess one virtue without possessing them all.
So many issues have been raised about Aristotles definition of aret that even trying to cite the main ones
would require another paper. In the scope of the present paper, three questions are particularly important
because they all concern aspects of Aristotles virtue ethics that can be easily misunderstood. These issues
can be summarised under three headings that are couples of words in Aristotles lexicon:
1. Daimon / Eudaimonia
2. Hetos / Etos
3. Logos / Nous
2.1 Daimon / Eudaimonia
The virtues says Aristototle - are those habits, the possession and exercise of which make humans
flourish. Flourishing is a good, perhaps the greatest good. The Greek word that we translate with
flourishing is eudaimonia. The concept of e. is central to Aristotles theory on virtue: the virtues are as
valuable as they allow to achieve eudaimonia, and in Aristotles ethics eudaimonia takes the place that the
good had in Plato:
Now we call that which is in itself worthy of pursuit more final than that which is worthy of pursuit
for the sake of something else, and that which is never desirable for the sake of something else
more final than the things that are desirable both in themselves and for the sake of that other thing,
and therefore we call final without qualification that which is always desirable in itself and never for
the sake of something else. Now such a thing eudamonia, above all else, is held to be; for this we
choose always for itself and never for the sake of something else, but honour, pleasure, reason,
and every virtue we choose indeed for themselves (for if nothing resulted from them we should still
choose each of them) but we choose them also for the sake of eudamonia, judging that by means

of them we shall be eudamonos. Eudamonia, on the other hand, no one choose for the sake of
these, nor, in general, for anything other than itself (NE I.7.1097a30-b6).
Eudaimonia is often translated as happiness or well-being, but it literally means having a good demon, a
good guardian spirit. The history of the relationship between the demon and the virtues dates back at
least to Heraclitus: Etos antropo daimon, character is humans demon (Fr 177 DK) writes Heraclitus. Then
it is even obvious to cite Socrates demon: [] is that something divine and spiritual (daimonion t) comes
to me, the very thing which Meletus ridiculed in his indictment. I have had this from my childhood; it is a sort
of voice that comes to me, and when it comes it always holds me back from what I am thinking of doing, but
never urges me forward. (Apol,31d); and to cite Plato on Eros: [] they are the intermediate sort, and
amongst these also is Love. For wisdom has to do with the fairest things, and Love is a love directed to what
is fair; so that Love must needs be a friend of wisdom, and, as such, must be between wise and ignorant
[] Such, my good Socrates, is the nature of this spirit (daimon). (Sym.204b). In the perspective of this
paper, it is above all worth noting that Greek culture perceived virtues as inherently relational, how it is
clearly shown even by this way to express the concept of happiness as being accompanied by a good
demon. The idea of a person alone with his conscience, so familiar to modern ethics, is indeed quite remote
from ancient Greeks authors. In particular reading Aristotle on virtues, one should always have in mind his
famous definition of the human being as zoon politikon, an animal living in the polis.
Aristotles discussion about eudaimonia starts by criticising an old Greek maxim, which he refers to in the
Solons version (NE I, 11), and that we know from Sophocles, in the first verses of the Trachinies (Tr. 1-3):
There is a saying among men, put forth long ago, that you cannot judge a mortal's life and know whether it
is good or bad until he dies. On the contrary Aristotles point is that one should be able to determine how a
life can be happy, rather independently from chance, by using reason (nous). In several passage, Aristotle
affirms that in this field there is no possibility of certitude, but yet a certain practical knowledge is feasible.
Indeed Aristotle believes that one should not trust only in good fate (even if he does not deny the
importance of good fate!) and he conceives e. as the active exercise of the power of the mind in conformity
to reason. An important point is that Aristotle does not give any justification of what eudamonia is. He thinks
that it is enough to observe the world - to live in the world - to know what e. is. Thus, given the proper
account of eudamonia, it should be possible to establish which qualities of character contribute to it, and so
are virtues, and which do not, and so are vices. These qualities of character will then provide the key to
determining good and bad actions. The virtues Aristotle lists are taken from the common experience and
opinions of citizens of the day: everyone in Aristotles Athens knew who the virtuous citizens were. Aristotle
states that virtues and good are facts (and in this sense he is rather close to pre-socratic philosophers) and
not theoretical constructions. He seeks what we could even call sociological descriptions of the virtues,
rather than philosophical definitions. In other words Aristotle seems to think that having a good guardian
spirit should be considered a metaphorical, mythological, expression that actually means having a good
and mutually fruitful relation with other citizens.
2.2 Hetos / Etos
The (probably false) etimology that Aristotle uses to point out the strict relationship between habits and
ethics is well known: he presumes common linguistic origin between the two Greek words hetos (ethics) and
etos (character, habits). Aristotle mentions three things through which one can become virtuous: nature,
habit, and teaching. There is nothing we can do to ensure the presence of the first; as regards the third,
teaching, this will only be effective with those whose soul has trained its habits to enjoy and hate in the right
way. In other words, also teaching requires prior forming habits: in this way, the formation of habits can be
considered grounding all virtues. Then why does he take into account nature? Actually a serious problem
arises when one considers more in depth the relationship between habits and virtues. To acquire a virtue
one should get used to it, but in order to get used to it one should already posses it. The argument seems to
be circular. Aristotles solution is to say that there are natural virtues (phusik aret) that constitute the
foundation for acquiring moral and intellectual virtues:

It is plain that none of the virtues arise in us by nature; for nothing that exists by nature can form a
habit contrary to its nature. For instance, the stone which by nature moves downwards cannot be
habituated to move upwards, not even if one tries to train it by throwing it up ten thousand times,
nor can fire be habituated to move downwards, nor can anything else that by nature behaves in
one way be trained to behave in another. Neither by nature, then, nor contrary to nature do virtues
arise in us; rather we are adapted by nature to receive them, and are made perfect by habit (NE
Another problem now arises: it concerns the mutual relationship between skills, natural capacities, and
virtues. The question of whether a virtue is a skill in Aristotles account is not at all clear. Aristotle
distinguishes virtues from both natural qualities and skills, although some of his examples of virtues are
easy to confuse with these other categories. In Aristotles thought, virtues and skills have numerous
connections, but virtues have a broader range of application than do skills, whereas skills tend to be more
subject specific, context specific, and role specific. On one hand virtues are more dispositions than actual
capacities, on the other hand they are more related to human essence than skills.
In the EE Aristotle says that the virtuous agent acts only from inclination, not from a sense of duty or reason
or something else. Aret is to be understood in terms of inner traits that cannot be thought of in terms of
rules of goals. Right and wrong cannot be encapsulated in rules: the virtuous person is someone who
perceives and fairly effortlessly acts upon situationally unique moral requirements. For modern-day people,
it is easy to be misled in interpreting Aristotles theory as a psychological account on virtues based on a
theory of conditioning. It is only partially true: Aristotle was a scientist and he aimed at giving a scientific
foundation to his theory, yet, in his view, virtues are not a simple psychological analogue of moral principles,
that is to say that they are not mere dispositions to obey automatically or to follow what rules prescribe: they
are positive attitudes to make the right choice independently of any general rule. In NE (1144b 1-17) he says
that the natural dispositions are found in children and animals, notes that without intelligence (nous) they are
apt to be harmful, and says that if the subject with the natural dispositions acquires intelligence, his
disposition, while still resembling the natural one, will not be the same.
2.3 Logos / Nous
The notion of logos is central to all Greek philosophy. Even to hint at all difficulties related to the translation
of this word would require an entire book. First of all logos means reason in all contemporary meanings: 1)
the thing that makes some facts intelligible; 2) the foundation of these facts; 3) the proportion between
facts; 3) the faculty to understand facts; and 4) the arguments that derive from that understanding of facts.
But logos also means statement, principle, law, ratio and in most Greek philosophy the word is used to point
out the principle that gives rationality to the world, notion that survived in the idea of laws of nature. In NE
the term logos is used in two compound nouns: analogia and ortos logos.
Analogia, means proportion, analogy. The English word proportion comes from the Latin proportio, which in
turn literally translates the Greek word analogia. Analogy is the ratio between one part and the others, and
between parts and the whole (Varro De Lingua Latina, 8, 32; 9:1). The idea that reality is rational derives
from the notion of analogy. Greeks were fascinated by the idea of discovering proportions that rule the world
and the whole Greek culture (theology, science, arts) was intrigued by this idea. Archias of Taranto was
probably the first who wrote a treatise on analogy and gave a definition of it. Platos philosophy was largely
based on the concept of analogy, whose role in ruling the world is clearly expressed in Timaeus. The search
for the perfect proportion pervaded Greek aesthetics. The golden section and the canonical ratio, in plastic
arts, as well as the harmonic progression in music, are all examples of analogies. Even ethics was based on
the concept of proportion: according to Socrates justice was the perfect proportion between the individual
and thepolis. Plato s ethics sets itself against Sophists by stating that God is the unit of measure (and

measuring means to establish a proportion). The concept of analogy is central to Aristotelian definition of
the virtues. Proportion is what allows one to establish the criteria according to which one can judge which
dispositions are virtues and which are not. Aristotle answers Socrates criticism on current wisdom on virtues
by going back to Homeric roots of Greek civilization. After Aristotle, as well as after Homeric hetos, the
community is the real, and sole source of the virtues: there is no need to search for a theoretical definition,
because virtues are facts embodied in the community life. Yet Aristotles perspective is quite different from
Homer: while Homeric community was the community of aristocrats united by holy links of blood and
religions, Aristotles community is the human natural environment. The shift is thus from religion to social
science: Aristotle derives his definition of virtues from his scientific definition of human as zoon politicon,
animal living in the polis. The virtuous citizen, the spudaios, is thus the unit of measure of the virtues. In this
way Aristotle avoids both Platos theology and Protagoras relativism.
The term logos is present in NE also in another expression: ortos logos, right principle (NE, III, 8). The chief
need served by the right principle is to determine the mean. It important to emphasise that the mean of
which Aristotle speaks is a proportion, an analogy, not an arithmetic mean: mathematics and geometry were
the same things for Greeks as they derived numbers directly from geometric relations. Greeks thought that
numbers only measure ratios and this is the reason why irrational numbers were perceived as a scandal.
The concept of mean is indeed one of the most misunderstood in Aristotles philosophy. The search for the
right mean should be seen as a search for the right proportion rather than for an compromise between
opposite extremes (and actually the expression golden mean does not come from Aristotle, but from the
Latin poet Horace, who was certainly closer to our understanding of right mean).
The ortos logos proceeds from the activity of the intellect (nous). Aristotles conception of the good life
involves the harmonious flourishing of all our human capacities: this flourishing can be realised only under
the guidance of the intellect, nous. For Aristotle, what makes human beings essentially human is rationality,
and the model of good life he offers is shaped by the nous. The essence of the relationship between virtues
and the nous is given by the very definition of virtue as well functioning. One can summarise Aristotles
argument as the following:
- Virtues are those traits of character that allow a human being to be a good member of its species and a
good member of a species is one who performs well the distinctive function of its species;
- The distinctive function of human species is intellectual activities;
- Therefore, virtues are those traits of character that allow a human to perform at his best intellectual
Central to the understanding of the role of nous in the Aristotelian description of virtues is the notion of
phronesis, practical wisdom, which is one could say the representation of the nous in the moral realm.
Practical wisdom is the virtue that allows one to make the right choice:
Virtue is a state of character concerned with choice, lying in the mean, i.e. the mean relative to us,
this being determined by a principle,as the man of practical wisdom would determine it (NE
Phronesis is also defined as a truth-attaining intellectual quality concerned with doing and with the things
that are good for human beings (NE VI.5.1140b21). Aristotle classifies phronesis as an intellectual virtue,
but it is strictly connected to moral virtues too. He says that no one can have moral virtues without
phronesis, and anyone who has phronesis has moral virtues. The need for phonesis is set up in NE
(I.3.1094b11-14) when Aristotle remarks that ethics is not a precise science. The concept of phronesis
shows how it would be misleading to consider Aristotelian point of view on virtues as purely rational.
Actually, according to Aristotle, emotions are morally significant, and this is a major difference from any other
ethical account based on mere rationality, from Stoics to Kant. With fine psychological intuition, Aristotle
affirms that virtues and vices are dispositions not only to act, but also to feel, in other words virtues are

concerned both with actions and feelings. According to Aristotle, feeling the right emotion in a given situation
has an intrinsic moral value because it is the manifestation of virtue.

Summarising, we can list three points to be considered reading Aristotle on the subject of virtues:
1) Virtues are inner dispositions which concern the capacity of flourishing as a citizen.
2) Virtues are acquired traits of character. They go beyond mere conditioning: they are the real capacity of
making the best choice and to feel the right feeling in a given situation.
3) Virtues are the expression of a life ruled by reason, which is the most convenient life to a human being
because it accomplishes the excellence of the species.
Obviously one could ironically object that this argument seems to lead directly to the conclusion that the
perfect human exemplar would be an Athenian citizen contemporary to Aristotle. Needless to say that
Aristotle would have probably agreed without feeling the irony embarrassing.