Monthly Archives: February 2014

Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, Book V – Justice

After Aristotle has discussed the virtues that pertain to the passions as they relate to reason, he discusses the virtue of justice, which will be about relation between the agent and another. The question of justice to oneself is discussed at points throughout the Book, and is definitively answered in the last section.


I use here the division according to the lectures in the commentary by St. Thomas Aquinas:


Properly (885-1090)


Justice (885-1077)


Aquinas points out first that “concerning justice [Aristotle] proposes for consideration three differences existing between justice an the previously mentioned virtues”…the previous “are concerned with the passions…we took the mean and not the thing…Each of the afore-mentioned virtues is a mean between two vices, but justice is not a mean between two vices.”


Will, and not the senses more directly, is the proper subject of justice; justice is defined in the Catechism of the Catholic Church as “the moral virtue that consists in the constant and firm will to give their due to God and neighbor.” So justice is a mean in one way, in that it gives what is do, and not more or less (when we are speaking of strict justice). But true justice is found first in the will, and only then in the object, to which the will is conforming and striving. Therefore, an event can occur that is objectively unjust, but it may not be an unjust act on the part of the agent, who wills to be just, but mistakenly, and thus commits an objective unjustice.


Legal justice (885-926)


He says first that justice itself is a certain perfect virtue not in terms of itself but in relation to another. Legal justice is justice as relates to the community at large, that is, primarily, the polis or state.


Partic. Justice

Absolutely (927-999)


Aristotle then discusses distributive justice and commutative justice. The first of these deals with what the state or community owes the individual, and this in a proportionate manner, meaning it is based on what the individual contributes to society and perhaps to his rank or position. So a general may deserve more honor and a bigger house from the state. However, when it comes to communitive justice, this is not necessarily so. The general and the peasant will generally pay the same price for a new set of Reeboks.  Because of this more strict equality of communitive justice, economic issues get discussed by Aristotle, to include the coming into being and use of money as a standard of trade.


Relatively (1000-1077)


We are reminded, frequently throughout Aristotle’s account of the virtues, but seemingly more often during his treatment of justice, that it is reason and not man that should truly govern man. In legal justice especially, but in all three aspects of justice, man is the reasoner, but it is reason that is law, and not man arbitrarily.



Epikeia (1078-1090)


Its object (1078-1088)


St. Thomas clearly states the overall topic of this part of the treatise: ‘In Greek epiiches is understood as what is reasonable or becoming; it is derived from epi meaning “above” and ikos meaning “obedient,” because by equity a person is obedient in a higher way when he follows the intention of the legislator where the words of the law differ from it.’


Today, we often discuss keeping the intention of the law versus the letter, and often find that there arise cases where keeping the letter of the law is in direct opposition to the intention of the creator of the law in its original and universal conception.


Its subject (1089) and habit (1090)


The virtuous man is not a zealous enforcer of the law for vengeance’ sake, but rather, to make the offender better and safeguard the community. The habit, then, of equity is not a virtue distinct from justice, but a species thereof.


Metaphorically (1091-1108)


Aristotle lastly revisits a topic he has touched upon several times throughout the treatise on justice, once again affirming that, despite the arguments that appear to the contrary, a man cannot really do injustice to himself, and this because to do injustice requires it be against one’s will, and one so to commit injustice against oneself implies a contradiction.


Personal Reflection


Justice and Equity


The difference in justice and equity is certainly a debated point in Christian theology, and no more is it a more pressing and divisive topic than when concerning election. The main point seems to be this: that God, in justice, could let us all remain unsaved (not justified) and yet, He, by mercy, wills to save some. This salvation of only some is, then, certainly just, but most certainly not equitable.


St. Thomas states in his commentary that “The reason why not everything can be determined according to the law is that the law cannot possibly be framed to meet some rare particular incidents, since all cases of this kind cannot be foreseen by man. On account of this, after the enactment of the law, a decision of the judges is required by which the universal statement of the law is applied to a particular matter. Because the material of human acts is indeterminate, it follows that their norm, which is the law, must be indeterminate in the sense that it is not absolutely rigid.”


While I certainly do not have the space here to propose how this may give insight into the justice/mercy question and the will of God “that all be saved” is also in conformity with the fact that “few enter” and are saved (combined with God as universal first mover but creatures as true causes), I think that the above comment can indeed be a point of reflection on the mystery of God’s justice and election.

Summary of Nicomachean Ethics Book II

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.

Summary of Nicomachean Ethics Book III

Part I: Voluntary Action

Spontaneous and Involuntary

Compulsory action is said to be that that originates outside of the agent. A rock, for instance, never acts from an internal principle to move away from the center of gravity of the earth, but must be thrown, for example, to move upward. This principle of movement obviously comes from outside the agent. Such action is said to be involuntary. Action that begins from within the agent, however, is in the power of that agent (at least to some extent) and, in an intellectual subject, is said to be voluntary. It is voluntary action which is our subject in ethics.

Voluntary Action and Merit

Returning to the example of the rock, we do not blame a rock when it hits us in the head, but rather the person who threw the rock at us. This is in keeping with the principle of voluntary action, and it is voluntary action that deserves praise or condemnation. Even when, say, a snake bites us, we may attribute (in a way) voluntary action to the creature, and be upset at the snake for biting us, we still do not see the snake as having acted in an immoral manner, but rather recognize its action as in keeping with its [determined] nature. Not so, the human that bites us, for being an intellectual creature, the latter has true voluntarity to its action.

Involuntary and Ignorance

Of course, ignorance can change the voluntary character of an action. If the same human bit my finger, but thought he had grabbed his chicken fingers, then I may be upset (and my finger may throb), but I also recognize that his action was not morally evil in the way I would claim if he bit my finger on purpose. However, if the same person often bit peoples’ fingers, repeatedly making a similar mistake, we could certainly say that he has a moral duty to check what he is eating before biting into it. His ignorance may not be completely without personal fault. Not all ignorance cancels out moral responsibility, but only ignorance that cannot be (at east reasonably) helped.

Definition of Voluntary

So the definition of the voluntary seems to be ‘that which the agent himself originates in such a way that the agent knows the individual circumstances that concur with the action.’


Choice and voluntary are not identical, but choice seems to be a species of the voluntary. Choice means that the decision between alternative options (and simply ‘not to act’ is a viable option) are known and considered. Choice always has to do with the means toward and end, and we choose by pondering and then deciding to achieve our intended end in one way or another.


We take council so as to make sure our choice aligns properly with it being voluntary, for as we said, we want to know the individual circumstances that concur with the action, and to know the truly best (that is, ‘good,’ in keeping with our true nature and true end) option to take. We take counsel especially in the practical arts, and in ethics most specifically, because there are no simple formulas, but as ethics is much like an art, many options in almost infinite different circumstances will exist in which we must apply the objective principles of moral science.

Object of Willing

The object of willing is the good. But, in each circumstance, and for the particular individual willing some action, the apparent good is the object of willing. It is necessary, for this reason, to seek counsel (whether from others or at least in personal reflection) so that the true good and the apparent good rightly align. This is what Aristotle says that ‘the virtuous person correctly passes judgment on each individual thing and in each case what appears to him is truly good.’

Aristotle wraps up the first half of this book by making clear that virtue and vice are within our power. He then goes on to refute other errors, such as the thought that no one is voluntarily evil (which overly emphasizes the intellect and disregards the will in moral education) and that we have no faculty of the cognoscitive good (but the true good and apparent good for each man does not mean that the true good is subjective).

Part II: Moral Virtues


‘A man is called brave principally because he is not afraid of death for a good cause nor of all emergencies that involve death.’

False Fortitude

True fortitude does not involve the actions of the daredevil or the uncontrolled actions that stem from wrath, because fortitude, like all virtues, must be in keeping the truly good and undertaken voluntarily and with right reason.


Temperance is a mean dealing with pleasures, and this virtue pertains primarily to the sense of taste and touch, inasmuch as these same senses are those that least set us apart from all other animals (remember, our concern is ultimately that we are intellectual creatures, and our end as man is in keeping with this). ‘Temperance and intemperance then have to do with such pleasures as the other animals have in common with man. Hence gratifications of touch and taste seem to be servile and brutish.’

Part III: Personal Reflection

I spoke the least on fortitude above, but want to reflect on it briefly here. When we read Josef Pieper on fortitude, he emphasizes the fact that this virtue really does pertain primarily to a willingness to die in battle, and he also emphasizes the patient suffering of the martyr as the way we most clearly see (graced) fortitude.

I think of fortitude in its relation to the Christian life, and its special relation to the sacrament of Confirmation. Confirmation makes us soldiers of God.  It has been variously designated a making fast or sure, a perfecting or completing, as it expresses its relation to baptism. It is, after baptism, the next Sacrament of Initiation.  But what does it do?

“Now it has been said above (1; 65, 1) that, just as Baptism is a spiritual regeneration unto Christian life, so also is Confirmation a certain spiritual growth bringing man to perfect spiritual age. But it is evident, from a comparison with the life of the body, that the action which is proper to man immediately after birth, is different from the action which is proper to him when he has come to perfect age. And therefore by the sacrament of Confirmation man is given a spiritual power in respect of sacred actions other than those in respect of which he receives power in Baptism. For in Baptism he receives power to do those things which pertain to his own salvation, forasmuch as he lives to himself: whereas in Confirmation he receives power to do those things which pertain to the spiritual combat with the enemies of the Faith.” (Aquinas, ST III, Q.72)