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.


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