In Book II, Aristotle discusses virtue in general, to include its essence, and that it is a mean between extremes, which will be vices of excess or defect. He will then examine the major virtues individually, although not thoroughly (that will come later) and completes Book II by asking how one attains these virtues.
He begins by discussing whether it is an action, a nature, or a habit. Looking at the first two options, it is shown that it cannot be the case that virtue is an action, nor is in our nature (although it is not contrary to nature). It must be, therefore, a habit. It is not contrary to nature, however, in that our natures have virtue in potency, but it is through [repeated] actions that these habits are actualized. Virtues are habits that dispose toward certain action. Virtues, then, are principles of action.
Now, man becomes virtuous by repeated acts, and these actions occur more easily by the possession of the virtues. It takes work, then, to form them, but when formed, they make similar work easier. This can be compared to the athlete, who must run to become a good runner, and yet, once a good runner, his running comes easier. It is reciprocal.
Operations producing the habit of virtue take place according to right reason, and so the virtues cannot be passions, which of themselves are morally neutral. In this way, Aristotle differs strongly from the Stoics, for example. In commenting on Aristotle’s work, St. Thomas says that “He says first that to establish the definition of virtue we have to take for granted three principles in ‘the soul: passions, powers, and habits. Virtue must come under one of these, for he just said that virtue is a principle of certain operations of the soul.” The passions are not blameworthy or praiseworthy as such, but as we use them, in accord with right reason. Therefore, “A man is not praised or blamed because he is simply afraid or angry but only because he is afraid or angry in a particular way, that is, according to reason or contrary to reason. The same must be understood of the other passions of the soul. The passions of the soul, therefore, are neither virtues nor vices.”
Pleasure or sorrow is said to be a sign of virtue already produced. A man who does not steal, for example, but is saddened by the ‘loss’ of money or goods, does in fact do the right thing, according to reason, but he does not do it in the way a virtuous man would, for a virtuous man would not be saddened in the act, but rather joyous in having acted rightly.
We must consider not only that virtue is a habit but also what kind of habit, says Aristotle. The virtues will render good both the man and his work. Accordingly, Aquinas comments “The reason is that the virtue or power of a thing is judged by the best it can do… Now the utmost or best to which the power of anything extends is called its excellent performance. It belongs to the virtue of every thing, therefore, to render an excellent performance. Because a perfect operation proceeds only from a perfect agent, it follows that everything is both good and operates well according to its own virtue.”
The chief characteristic of virtue is the mean, and this mean is not simply the arithmetical average between the vices of excess and defect, but a mean according to the one possessing the virtue. In other words, there is no simple universal formula for determining the ‘exact’ measure of fortitude as opposed to cowardice or rashness, but rather, it must be in accord with reason, with the person so acting, and the circumstances of his action.
Now, virtue can be an extreme in the measure of goodness, and this is not contrary to virtue. This is easy to see in the intellectual virtues, for example, and in the theological virtues, where there is no ‘mean’ of faith, hope, or love. But the cardinal virtues are an extreme towards the recognition of the good and in being in accord with right reason. This is not contrary to their being a mean between excess and defect . Aquinas states it clearly: “precisely as it possesses the character of the best and as it acts or guides well in a determined genus it is an extreme. For an understanding of this, we must consider that the entire goodness of moral virtue depends on the rectitude of the reason. Hence good is in harmony with moral virtue according as it follows right reason, but evil has a reference to each vice, viz.: excess and defect inasmuch as both depart from right reason. Therefore, according to the nature of goodness and evil both vices are in one extreme that is, in evil which is thus shown to be a deviation from reason. Virtue however is in the other extreme, that is, in good which is characterized as a following of reason.”
As mentioned at the beginning of this summary, a discussion of individual virtues and vices follows. But as it is brief and will be expounded upon in detail in later books of the EN, we will forego any analysis here. Also, the mean and extreme in virtues relating to honors is discussed, and again, these will be discussed more thoroughly later.
Aristotle tells us of the opposition among the virtues and vices, and that this opposition of vices among themselves is greater than of the vices to the virtues. He also states that, generally, one extreme is more opposed to virtue than the other. For example, men are more inclined to excess in temperance than to defect, and likewise, we recognize cowardice as further than rashness from courage.
While all the above is certainly important, Aristotle never ceases to remind the reader of the practical nature of ethics. Therefore, the manner of acquiring virtues must be learned, but moreso, followed. The three primary ways of acquiring virtues, according to the philosopher, are to avoid extremes, consider one’s natural inclinations, and beware of pleasures.
A virtuous man, a magnanimous man, cannot necessarily be known by his actions alone, for may have little virtue and yet seem to accomplish something great, while a more noble man does not accomplish a comparable outward task. While we fully seek to do great things for the glory of God, we do not know that He has called us to do great outward things.
We may be judged by men on what we accomplish in their eyes, and we should do everything we can with the intention of objective success in this world, declaring our successes to the glory of God and accepting full culpability for our failures. But if outward success always followed from a right interior disposition, we may be tempted to pride.
All the virtues are interior dispositions that are preparations for doing the good, whether these good things come to fruition or not. Not understanding this can lead to two related dangers. We may, despairing of ever accomplishing great things, not seek to do the things daily that would possibly lead to the “great deed.” Likewise, if we fail to accomplish a great task that seems to have been set before us, we may tend to despair, having worked so long for, what seems to us, nothing. Again, God asks us to be faithful, not necessarily successful.
A soldier will train day after day, year after year, and may or may not ever enter into battle. If he trains and never fights, he should be glad for the peace that has allowed it. But if he grows negligent in his training, the battle that is suddenly upon him may prove his end. Years of arduous training are suddenly seen to be worth it in the mere minutes of close-quarters combat. Likewise, we must train ourselves in the virtues daily, not knowing in what ways we may or may not be tested.
To quote my earthly father, “Life is too long to do nothing and too short to do anything great. But great things are done in a short time by those who have been long in preparing.” We therefore strive at each moment to create in ourselves the dispositions, the powers, to meet our calling.