Aristotle Essays


Although Aristotle was a friend and student of Plato, he did not agree with Plato's theories on morality. Like many Greeks, Aristotle did not believe in the existence of inherently bad behaviors.

A behavior cannot be either good or evil, but a person can have good or bad character traits. Aristotle said that all people are composed of a combination of vice (bad character traits) and virtue (good character traits). He uses this concept to explain the thesis: Virtue is a disposition concerned with choice.

This is explained in Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics. However, the thesis cannot be understood without an understanding of what exactly a disposition is. Aristotle believed that dispositions are one of three groups of things that make up the soul. Feelings and capacities are the other two; they differ from dispositions in that they are not leaned responses.

A disposition has to be learned in response to a situation. For example we learn to wear certain styles of clothing. In America, it a norm for men to wear pants; skirts and dresses are typically considered women's clothing. Men could wear dresses if they wanted to, and they are physically able to do so, but most men choose not to. Most American men have a disposition to wear pants.

Because dispositions are variable, we must make certain decisions in given situations that we would not make in other situations. The other components of the soul are not variable in the same way. This is important to Aristotle's thesis because these choices are applied to virtue. He arrives at the theory that virtue is a disposition through augment by elimination.

Virtue is a character trait, and character traits are part of an individual. If virtue is part of the soul then it must be a disposition, a feeling, or a capacity. In class we used the example of a drunk driver causing a car accident and seriously injuring another person. Most people would hold the drunk driver entirely responsible for the other driver's injuries and any suffering the other driver experiences in regards to the accident. It is not considered virtuous to drink and drive, meaning that a bad character trait is expressed by a drunk driver.

The action of drunk driving is important, but not because it is inherently wrong. Even if someone has a thought or feelings about driving drunk, they cannot be held accountable for the thought and feelings if they do not act on them. In the example, the drunken person acted on the desire to drive and created an unfavorable situation. The individual cannot be held accountable for the desire to drive, only for acting on the desire. Since people can't be held accountable for their emotions, virtue is not an emotion.

Using the same example, we can prove that virtue is not a capacity. Everyone is capable of getting drunk, driving a car, and causing an accident. Just because everyone is capable of these things does not mean that everyone will do them. Since we are all capable of basically the same things, but we do not all fulfill these capacities we cannot be held accountable for them.

The only thing that virtue could be is a disposition, because it is not a feeling or a capacity. Since virtue is a disposition we are responsible for the choices that we make based on personal vice and virtue. How virtuous a person is determines how they will behave in a given situation.

Aristotle argued that since different people may act differently in the same situation there are no inherently bad actions. The Virtue Theory claims that an action is good if performed by a person based on virtue and bad if performed based on vice. This enforces the thesis that virtue is a disposition because a virtuous person will theoretically make the right choice in any situation.

Arguments can be made both for and against this thesis. One example of where the thesis can be applied is in the situation of self-defense. If a woman is attacked by a man with a gun and is about to be violently raped, but somehow gets the gun away from the man and shoots him to save herself, it will not be said that she is a bad person or that what she did was wrong. It will most likely be said that she is brave and that she did what was right (given the situation).

An argument against the thesis is that some actions are morally wrong on every level. Christianity and Judaism both describe actions that are bad, independent of the person performing the action. For example, Christianity says that it is wrong for a person to kill another person. Therefore, someone who kills another person has done a bad thing whether they have good or bad character traits doesn't matter, because the action itself is not moral.

I personally believe that there are actions that in most cases are wrong. Murder, adultery, and stealing are all bad behaviors. Before reading Aristotle's thesis I would have said that these things are inherently bad. After reading Nicomachean Ethics I thought more about the topic and considered many examples of when "bad" behaviors are the right thing to do or the only choice. The self-defense example is one of these; another classic example would be a mother stealing bread to feed her family. From a Christian standpoint I would like to say that there are inherently bad behaviors, but after thinking of many examples of when a "bad" behavior would be acceptable, I agree with Aristotle's thesis.

     

Study Questions

What role did teleology play in Aristotle's corpus?

Aristotle took a teleological approach to nearly all his studies, as he thought that determining natural purposes was the path to the most fundamental principles governing the world. Thus, in biology, he sought to understand the purposes of various organs and characterized species in light of these purposes. Regarding ethics and politics, he tried to establish that man's purpose was to participate in the political community, since what separates him from the animals is reason and language (which allows man to debate). With this natural purpose established, he went on to argue that man is complete only as a member of a community and that the ultimate form of association was the city-state.

Teleology also played a role in his famous theory of the Four Causes. He argued that natural science must not only take into account causes such as origin or form, but also the final aim. Thus health could be called one of the causes of exercise, even while the reverse was also true.

For Aristotle, what is virtue and how do we acquire it?

Virtue, for Aristotle, is the developed ability to recognize the right or good thing to do. In many situations, no rulebook can tell us exactly how to act. Thus a virtuous person must possess the appropriate disposition that can recognize–as if by instinct–the correct course of action. This skill is not, however, simply innate. Rather, we acquire virtue by the development of good habits, and in turn, habit is developed by the appropriate exercise of reason in past choices.

In practice, virtue generally meant the appropriate medium between the two extremes of excess and defect. For example, brashness is an excess of courage, while cowardice is a result of the lack of courage. Courage itself, in this case, is the term used for the proper medium. Finally we might also ask, what is the purpose of virtue? Aristotle believed it was the means to happiness. He considers and dismisses alternatives like pleasure and honor: only a life of virtue can bring about happiness for human beings.

In what way does Aristotle's treatment of poetics reflect his scientific background?

Aristotle's strong scientific background reveals itself as he takes on subjects that are less based on objective fact. In the Poetics he attempts to establish a guideline for tragedy, and to do so he did not simply theorize on his own predilections. Rather, he studied a significant number of Greek plays and focused on their most successful examples. And only with these observations did he begin to generalize, as he would have done in any other science. The result is a very specific and concrete definition of tragedy. For example, he divides it into six elements–plot, character, diction, thought, song, and spectacle–and proceeds to break them down and analyze them systematically.

The objective manner in which he attempts to analyze a subject like creative writing might seem surprising to us. A topic that is creative in nature cannot be fully understood within such confining bounds. In what way, then, is Aristotle's work still relevant to literary criticism? We certainly don't use his Poetics as a guidebook, and it is unlikely that he ever intended it as such. Rather, this kind of critical work helps to give some structure to and make clearer distinctions within the genre of tragedy. We can find in his system guiding principles rather than absolute dictates.

Suggested Essay Topics

How does Aristotle's response to Plato's Theory of Forms reflect his more general departure from his former master?

How does the concept of the Unmoved Mover play into both natural philosophy and theology?

What kind of attitude did Aristotle bear toward Plato as his own career flourished?

What is wisdom for Aristotle and how does one acquire it?

To what extent does Aristotle and his body of work remain relevant in modern learning?

How did Aristotle make the transition from his Ethics to his Politics?

Characterize Aristotle's contributions to biology and their lasting significance.

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