Monthly Archives: March 2014

Aristotle, Friendship, and Christ: a few random musings

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.

The Pharisees – A Short Reflection


‘”Judaism” today and “Pharisaism” in the time of Jesus are the same.’[i] Of course, this is a ridiculous and uneducated statement on so many levels. ‘Pharisaism,’ as the term is used today, is only partially related to the beliefs and practices of the actual Pharisees in the time of Christ. The old Catholic Encyclopaedia states ‘after the conflicts with Rome (A.D. 66-135) Pharisaism became practically synonymous with Judaism,’[ii] but this must be understood in a post-Temple context and in the light of the wars with and defeat of the Jews by Rome, and here, the term ‘Pharisaism’ is being used correctly, stating what the Pharisees indeed taught at that time, and not as the term is often used today.  And even in its modern usage, to make such a statement about ‘Judaism’ is absurd as well. How do we remedy such an attitude? Much could be said about the history of what we now call ‘the Jews,’ and it is a rich and rewarding study. But our purposes here are to examine, ever so briefly, the Pharisees themselves.

The Pharisees were an important group in the time of Christ, and have often been misunderstood. While certainly Jesus often had confrontations with them, there were also Pharisees among his followers.

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites!…You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell?”[iii] “Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council. He came to Jesus at night and said, ‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.’”[iv]

While not intending here a ‘defense’ of the Pharisees (as if they needed one) I would like to present a simple picture of them that goes beyond the use of the term today, which is probably ill founded, for in many Christian circles, the term Pharisee is used to portray a legalistic attitude, and to belittle those who would call themselves ‘religious.’ These uses, however, show a lack of understanding about who the Pharisees actually were. As N.T. Wright notes in his The New Testament and the People of God, “Their aim, so far as we can tell, was never that of simple piety for its own sake. Nor (one need scarcely add) was it a system of self-salvation so often anachronistically ascribed to them by Christians who knew little about the first century but a lot about the Pelagian controversy. Their goals were to honor Israel’s God, the following of his covenant charter, and the pursuit of the full promised redemption of Israel.”[v]

Beginning of the Pharisees

This religious sect came into existence as a class about the third century B.C. After the exile, there was much intermixing of the pagan and Jewish culture, to include intermixing in marriage. This was contrary to the law, and it had, of course, many negative effects on the people of Israel. As a result, many purists who wanted to stay more faithful to the covenant with the God of Israel formed sects or factions (others besides the Pharisees will be briefly discussed later). The more zealous among the Jews drew apart calling themselves Chasidim or “pious ones”, i.e., they dedicated themselves to the realization of the ideas inculcated by Esdras, the holy priest and doctor of the law.[vi]

The Pharisees emerged after the revolts of the Maccabees, led by Judas Maccabaeus and his descendants.’ In the violent conditions incidental to the Machabean wars these “pious men”, sometimes called the Jewish Puritans, became a distinct class. They were called Pharisees, meaning those who separated themselves from the heathen, and from the heathenizing forces and tendencies which constantly invaded the precincts of Judaism.’[vii]

The Pharisees, then, set themselves up as pious and zealous defenders of the traditions of Israel, and this must be seen in the light of a people whose ways were attacked by the pagans around them since the beginning. God, indeed, told His people not to intermarry the neighbouring peoples, and certainly not to worship their gods. While it is true that, ‘without knowledge, even zeal is not good,’[viii] we must recognize the good and noble purpose of the Pharisees, not only in their beginning, but even through the time of the Gospel and thereafter, rather than group them all as a bigoted, self-righteous group. To do so would be the same mistake as those who would blame ‘all Jews’ for the death of Christ with a false understanding of what the Gospel writers had meant. ‘A study of the early history of Pharisaism reveals a certain moral dignity and greatness, a marked tenacity of purpose at the service of high, patriotic, and religious ideals.’[ix]

The Hasmonean period

During the Hasmonean period, it has been argued that the Sadducees and Pharisees functioned primarily as political parties. N.T. Wright, while not arguing that politics was the main aim of the Pharisees, certainly rejects the notion that they limited themselves to issues of personal piety.[x] Political life effects religious life, and vice versa, and this is seen most markedly in times of foreign rule. Public life and personal piety, regardless of the current trend to try and separate one’s faith from their political stance, always go together. Any integrated life will not make a wide distinction between belief and practice, nor between private and public conduct. The Pharisees sought in every way to keep the Chosen People aware of their state as a chosen people, and ‘the influence of the Pharisees over the lives of the common people was strong and their rulings on Jewish law were deemed authoritative by many.’[xi]

The Roman period

‘The Pharisees are seen at their best when contrasted with the Zealots on one hand, and with the Herodians on the other.’[xii] They seem to take a middle way, as they tend to reject violently overthrowing the Romans (a task that almost always proved unsuccessful in the short term and never successful for long), but condemned the acceptance of Roman and pagan culture as an acceptable partner in Jewish life. It was through living out the law of God faithfully (as they understood it) that they hoped to attain the freedom of Israel from its oppressors.


Unlike the Sadducees, the Pharisees also believed in the resurrection of the dead. They also believed in a literal resurrection of the body. We see this distinction between them and the Sadducees when Jesus discusses certain issues with each, as well as when Paul, as recorded in the Acts of the Apostles, pits the opposing beliefs against each other.

Then Paul, knowing that some of them were Sadducees and the others Pharisees, called out in the Sanhedrin, “My brothers, I am a Pharisee, descended from Pharisees. I stand on trial because of the hope of the resurrection of the dead.” When he said this, a dispute broke out between the Pharisees and the Sadducees, and the assembly was divided. (The Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, and that there are neither angels nor spirits, but the Pharisees believe all these things.)[xiii]

Many of the distinctions in belief between these two groups seems to stem from the Pharisees’ acceptance of most of what Christians call the New Testament, whereas the Sadducees were reluctant to accept anything beyond the Pentateuch as revealed truth. ‘As contrasted with the Sadducees, the Pharisees represented the democratic tendency; contrasted with the priesthood, they stood for both the democratic and the spiritualizing tendency.’[xiv]

Mention must be made of a third prominent group, the Essenes, who “…emerged out of disgust with the other two. This sect believed the others had corrupted the city and the Temple. They moved out of Jerusalem and lived a monastic life in the desert, adopting strict dietary laws and a commitment to celibacy.”[xv]


The Pharisees are an often misunderstood group, and in fact, like almost any group, one must make a few observations:

  • They must always be viewed as a whole, but also with the distinctions that are bound to exist within that whole
  • The good (or evil) ideals of a group must be contrasted with the human beings in the group that often fail to hold to that ideal
  • The group must be understood in the context of their time, the surrounding culture, and rival (or allied) groups that interact with them. The development and history of a group is especially important, so that reference to the groups working within a certain period of history may be contextually understood with what they were at that time, rather than on the basis of what they may have later become

Certainly, Jesus and the Apostles had their conflicts with ‘the Pharisees,’ but likewise, the Pharisees had positive qualities, and many of them were not enemies but friends of Christ. We must educated ourselves on who the Pharisees were in a balanced and realistic way, lest we make a similar mistake to those who think only that ‘therefore the Jews sought the more to kill him’[xvi] and forget that ‘salvation is from the Jews.’[xvii]


[iii] Matthew 23:29,30

[iv] John 3:1-2

[v] N.T. Wright,The New Testament and the People of God (NTPG) 189


[vii] ibid

[viii] Proverbs 19:2


[x] See Wright, ‘NTPG’ Ch.7ff and ‘Paul and the Faithfulness of God’ Part I, 2.2

[xi] Wikipedia


[xiii] Acts 23:6-8


[xvi] John 5:18

[xvii] John 4:22

Nicomachean Ethics – Books VI & VII

Book VI: Intellectual Virtues (most especially prudence)


In book VI, Aristotle takes up the question of the intellectual virtues, having already treated the virtues that pertain to the sensitive part of the soul directly (but as informed by reason). We now proposes to treat the intellectual virtues in a way similar to that of the previously discussed virtues: ‘consequently, we should divide right reason, an intellectual virtue that is rectitude of the reason, into its species, as in a similar fashion we have already divided the moral virtues.’ (Aquinas Commentary, 1109)

The intellectual virtues seem to be five: art, science, understanding, wisdom, and prudence. This enumeration is given, and Aristotle goes on to show that, although similar to other intellectual virtues, prudence cannot be reduced to one of the other four. The key distinction I take to be the difference between art, where the ‘product’ is external (the operation passes into external matter, such as the resulting sculpture or music) and action, where the act is intrinsic (the act may effect another. Where art is productive through reason, prudence is active through reason.

Aristotle makes it clear that prudence is not to be equated to science, which demonstrates from necessary things. Prudence, rather, takes its principles from necessary things, but applies them to contingent things, and in this way it might rightly be related to dialectics. There can be, then, a syllogism reasoning from principles to what must be done in the here and now, but the syllogism will include contingent matter, and therefore not be demonstrative. In simpler terms, prudence cannot be reduced to simply applying principles and deducing the right action in the same way principles can be used in geometry, for example.

‘Prudence then will be neither a science nor an art. It is not a science because the thing to be done is contingent; it is not an art because the genus of action and making differ.’ (EN 1165)

An important point is the simultaneous necessity of the moral virtues and the virtue of prudence. ‘A virtue is a habitual and firm disposition to do the good. It allows the person not only to perform good acts, but to give the best of himself. The virtuous person tends toward the good with all his sensory and spiritual powers; he pursues the good and chooses it in concrete actions.’ (CCC 1803) As St. Thomas comments, ‘But moral virtue, for instance, justice, causes a craftsman rightly to use his art. On the other hand, in the use of prudence an additional moral virtue is not required, for it was said (1170, where the example of the mutual influence of temperance and prudence were discussed) that the principles of prudence are ends in regard to which rectitude of judgment is preserved by the moral virtues. Hence prudence, which is concerned with things good for man, necessarily has joined with it the moral virtues preserving its principles.’ (Commentary, 1172)

Book VII: Continence and Incontinence

There is not only vice and virtue, but there are two other ‘degrees’ of moral dispositions that must be understood. The rarest, and yet worst and best degrees possible, are what may be deemed the beast-like and the god-like. Men may be brutish (beast-like) when they are either through extreme corruption by culture or physical/mental handicap more like irrational animals than like human. Likewise, an extreme sort of virtue could be deemed god-like or divine, as perhaps some of the great saints may have seemed at times, or the martyrs (with the help of grace) acted at their final tribulation.

But much more common are those who are not virtuous, but yet are not vicious, but (metaphorically, at least) somewhere in between. The virtuous, remember, do the good with joy and are not even tempted to the evil, for the good is habitual to them. The vicious, on the contrary, conclude that, for example, every pleasure is right for them to partake (the intemperate).

But between these two are those who, with right reason, would avoid the excess in pleasure but, at times and because of the passion arising in them, fail to adhere to right reason. A key indication of this is their sorrow and repentance when the passion has cooled and they regret their actions (something the vicious do not do, i.e., feel remorse). Likewise, the continent person succeeds in not giving into the temptation to enjoy and excess pleasure, but does so with sorrow, for although he obeys right reason, he is not so habitually exposed as to take his joy in doing the right, but often feels pained to do so. Nevertheless, he is on the right path and may in time build the habit and do later with joy and ease what he only does now through battling with his passions.