Monthly Archives: January 2014

Nicomachean Ethics I: A Reflection

The first order of business for Aristotle is to mark out the subject matter, how the subject is treated (the science) and the method of argument. Herein lie the content of the first three chapters. Aristotle is always one to start from principles, and here, if we are to determine what a person should do, that is, what actions would make a man a good man, we must determine what the ‘function’ of a man is; what is it that man ‘is for?’

After all, we could hardly give an answer as to whether or not a clock was a good clock unless we knew what it is a clock is for; what is it suppose to do. Once we do know this, however, we have something to measure it against, and to decide if it is good or faulty.

To take this analogy further, we may ask what the spring in a watch is for, and may determine that it is there to turn a cog. Well, what is the cog for? To turn a hand, perhaps. So the spring is a means, but not a final end. The spring is there, however, so that ultimately, the watch keeps and displays time, and displays it correctly. This is the final end of the watch, and what the means are there to help accomplish.

So Aristotle shows us that a man may do several things for the sake of other things, but that ultimately, there is some end at which all other things aim. This final end will be unique to man, or at least will be set apart inasmuch as man differs from other things.

Likewise, a computer may keep time (mine certainly has a clock on display) but the computer does more than this, and has higher functions. So while it may keep time as does a watch, its end will not be the same as a watch, for it goes beyond the watch in its ultimate function.

Likewise, man shares many traits with other beings; a man is like a rock, in that he has matter and form, and he is like a tree, in that he has nutritive and regenerative capabilities, and he is likewise like a beast, in that he has self movement and sensation (sight, hearing, and the like). But Aristotle will ask, ‘what sets man apart?’ and the answer is ‘reason.’ Man is capable of rational thought, and seeks to know things as they are.

Man’s good then will be something to do with his reasoning, but will not ignore his material nature, his nature he shares with other beings.

In Chapter II, Aristotle points out that the goal of both the individual and the political community is the same, that is, the perfection of the human being.  Just as Aristotle seems to differ with modern philosophers by assigning an objective nature to man, he differ here with modern political thought, for certainly we don’t often hear that the political community exists primarily for the good of the citizens’ virtuous activity.

In short, for Aristotle, the subject matter of political science is the doing of noble and just actions.

Now, this is a goal which allows of a great deal of fluctuation and variability. The philosopher therefore lays down the truth, for example, that the virtues are absolutely necessary for man to attain his highest good. They hold for all people and everywhere and at all times. However, we will also see that ethics is primarily a practical rather than speculative science. Because of this, the principles are objective and true, but their application will vary not only by situation, but even by person. For example, what would be brave in one situation may be cowardly in another, and what would be brave for a specific person (say, a well trained soldier) may be rash for another person (someone with no experience in combat trying to take on the same challenger).

Returning to what it is that man strives for, we take into account that he is rational. But we can ask the simple question, ‘why does man do the things he does?’ Ultimately, the end that seems to be only an end and not a means toward anything else is this: happiness. Man seeks to be happy, and it simply makes no sense to ask to what purpose he wishes to be happy. He may think he desires money, or honor, or sex, or food, or drugs, or somehow, even pain, but in the end, he does what he does and desires the things he desires so that he may be happy. The shocking thing to so many that have never read Aristotle or any of the ancient and medieval thinkers on ethics is this: it was not primarily duty or law that was the principle of their moral thought, but attaining true happiness.

Aristotle, in Book I of his Ethics, concludes that happiness is what we seek, and virtuous activity is how we attain this end.

Our contemporary culture would tell us that the key to happiness is freedom, but the modern understanding of freedom is extremely flawed. True freedom is not the “right” to simply follow the impulses of the will, but a true freedom is what is known as a “freedom for excellence.”

Servias Pinckaers uses the wonderful example of a piano player as a means to show what virtue can do for someone who seeks true freedom towards a specific end:

In the beginning the child, despite the desire to learn will often feel that the lessons and exercises are a constraint imposed on freedom and the attractions of the moment. There are times when practice has to be insisted upon…Of course, anyone is free to bang out notes haphazardly on the piano, as the fancy strikes him. But this is a rudimentary, savage sort of freedom… On the other hand, the person who really possesses the art of playing the piano has acquired a new freedom. (The Sources of Christian Ethics, p.355)

We see, then, that to truly be free to attain the very ends we were both made for and should aspire to attain to, that our freedom involves both a responsibility and a joy in becoming what we are meant to be. It should come as no surprise that, at the same time a new teaching on freedom overtook society (a freedom which emphasizes indifference rather than excellence) the virtues fell out of common knowledge and pursuit.

If we are to once again become a culture that seeks excellence, we must be a culture that strives after virtue. We are meant to be something, and we are meant to have a part in becoming that something. We are truly both what we are (as created) and what we make of ourselves: a sort of theistic existentialism. Made in the image of God, we are meant to be free, but free to be what He made us to be.

Noble Character and Virtuous Habits

“Noble and great characters are all made so by the constant repetition of virtuous actions…Those who really succeed in life can find no other way but the way of self-discipline and self-control, which is also the way to the greatest happiness possible on earth.” (Garesche, Ch. 3)


“Human virtues acquired by education, by deliberate acts and by a perseverance ever-renewed in repeated efforts are purified and elevated by divine grace. With God’s help, they forge character and give facility in the practice of the good. The virtuous man is happy to practice them. (CCC 1810)


To build a character that is truly noble and Catholic, we must pray, seeking God’s grace, and faithfully receive the Sacraments, by which God gives us these graces.


Jesus says: “I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in me, and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” The fruit referred to in this saying is the holiness of a life made fruitful by union with Christ. When we believe in Jesus Christ, partake of his mysteries, and keep his commandments, the Savior himself comes to love, in us, his Father and his brethren, our Father and our brethren. His person becomes, through the Spirit, the living and interior rule of our activity.”(CCC 2074)


In these brief essays, however, we will focus on “our part,” inasmuch as we are cooperators in God’s plan for us. “God is the sovereign master of his plan. But to carry it out he also makes use of his creatures’ cooperation. This use is not a sign of weakness, but rather a token of almighty God’s greatness and goodness. For God grants his creatures not only their existence, but also the dignity of acting on their own, of being causes and principles for each other, and thus of cooperating in the accomplishment of his plan.” (CCC 306)


“It requires plenty of courage and honesty to be sincere with oneself. There are many men and women who, their whole lives long, are afraid to stand face to face with their own mistakes and with the defects of their own character…It is only by seeing ourselves as we are that we can remake and perfect our own character.” (Garesche, Ch. 6)



We ought, then, to practice regularly the examination of conscience. There are many ways of doing this, to include going through the Ten Commandments or looking at the Beatitudes or even all the major points in the Sermon on the Mount. We might also, however, do so by examining the cardinal virtues, seeing where we have failed to be prudent, just, temperate, and where we have lacked fortitude. We should likewise examine ourselves in the light of the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity.


“…by learning from our mistakes, we cooperate with God in building up a noble character.” (Garesche, Ch. 6)


“…you can choose what to imitate. On that choice depends, to a great degree, your character and your destiny…by taking all the good characteristics of those around you, you can build up the ideal of a perfect character…you need not confine yourself to the people you actually know. Through the magnificent works of literature, you can associate with marvelous familiarity with the great minds, the noble hearts, and the shining characters of all history.” (Garesche, Ch. 7)


We, therefore, have no excuse if we say that we are not amongst other noble and virtuous people.  Even if this be true, we have at our disposal the greatness of those hero’s of virtue, whether factual persons of the past, or even fictional characters. As Christians, we certainly have the witness of the great saints of the past.


Of course, in building what we call a “Catholic character,” there is no greater example than that of Christ Jesus Himself.  Building a Catholic character, then, will be to imitate the virtues of first of Christ, but also of those who most imitated Him (“I urge you, then, be imitators of me,” says St. Paul in 1Cor4:16).


We are creatures of habit. But we are also responsible, to a great degree, for the habits we have. “Now, a habit is nothing more or less than an inward tendency to a certain line of action, which springs from the fact that we have often acted that way in the past, and that we are by nature inclined to do what we have often done before and in the way in which we have done it before.” (Garesche, Ch. 8)


We must, then, in building a noble character, focus on the four cardinal virtues, which are prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude. We must rightly understand them, but also strive constantly to build them. Indeed, in many ways, forming our character through the virtues is analogous to training our minds through study and our bodies through exercise. We will grow weaker or stronger in a large degree by whether we exercise or neglect to exercise these faculties.


“By studying these four good habits, or virtues, and by cultivating them diligently, we are able to lay the foundation of a strong, good character in a secure and permanent way.” (Garesche, Ch. 8)


Briefly, the four cardinal virtues are as follows (as described in the “In Brief” section of the Catechism):


1833    Virtue is a habitual and firm disposition to do good.

1834    The human virtues are stable dispositions of the intellect and the will that govern our acts, order our passions, and guide our conduct in accordance with reason and faith. They can be grouped around the four cardinal virtues: prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance.

1835    Prudence disposes the practical reason to discern, in every circumstance, our true good and to choose the right means for achieving it.

1836    Justice consists in the firm and constant will to give God and neighbor their due.

1837    Fortitude ensures firmness in difficulties and constancy in the pursuit of the good.

1838    Temperance moderates the attraction of the pleasures of the senses and provides balance in the use of created goods.



“The greatest of all historical examples of fortitude is, of course, the example of Christ, whose whole life was an exercise of this virtue, as it was of prudence, justice, and temperance…all these virtues, with a faithful balance, depend on one another, and if you succeed in cultivating any one of them to a notable degree, you will possess them all…” (Garesche, Ch. 12)