In their philosophies Plato and Aristotle each develop a significant account of human virtue. Throughcomparing and contrasting the two formulations, a deeper understanding of the thinkers’ ideas can behad.Plato provides his account of virtue in two different works, the Protagoras and the Republic. In theProtagoras Plato, through Socrates, argues that virtue is knowledge. The argument begins with thepremise that everyone wants what he or she believes to be good. From this it follows that when a persondoes something wrong or bad it cannot be because they want to do it, knowing it is bad, it must be thatthey want to do it, believing it to be good.
What separates the virtuous person from the un-virtuous isnot a desire for what is good, everyone desires what they think to be good, but rather the knowledge ofwhat the good really is. On this account, Plato’s conception of human virtue boils down to knowing thegood, and being able to correctly choose the actions that bring about the most good.Plato’s other account of virtue, found in the Republic looks, upon first glance, to have nothing incommon with the view offered in the Protagoras, but after further consideration, it can be seen to be inaccord with the concept of virtue as knowledge. Plato begins with an argument concerning the humansoul. He contends that there are at least three distinct components of the soul and calls them reason,appetite, and spirit. Appetite is the part of the soul that is animal like, lusting for bodily pleasuresand itches, reason that which is concerned with calculation and rational thought, and spirit the partassociated with emotions. After having established the various parts of the soul, Plato then makes theclaim that virtue lies in keeping the components of the soul in the correct relations.
Reason should guidethe soul, making decisions and determining what is wrong and right, spirit should follow reason andprovide motivation, and appetite should obey. Virtue on this account seems to be nothing but a magicproportion or some sort of balance of the soul, having nothing to do with knowledge or decision making.However, the Republic, more so than the Protagoras, seems to be a guide to the way in which one canactually become virtuous, as opposed to an abstract look at what it means to be virtuous. Taking thispoint of view it seems that Plato is suggesting that only through a state of the soul in which reason isruling and which appetite and spirit are in their complying roles can knowledge of the good, and hencevirtue, be acquired. Using the logic found in the Protagoras, it would follow that once anyone had theknowledge that the soul must be aligned in this manner to acquire virtue and had the knowledge thatacquiring virtue is the best good, then they would align their souls in these proportions and becomevirtuous, because everyone does what they believe to be the best good.
The only thing separating thevirtuous from the un-virtuous, then is this knowledge, and again we find that virtue, according to Plato,comes down to consisting in knowledge of the good, only this time we find that the knowledge is of howto acquire it.Aristotle spells out his account of virtue in the Nicomachean Ethics. Beginning with a discussion ofwhat people mean when they use the notion of virtue in their everyday language and then expandingthese ideas to the general case, Aristotle reaches several conclusions on virtue, and in particular whatit means for a human to be virtuous. The virtue of something, Aristotle contends, is whatever makesthe thing do it’s essential action or function, well. The essential function or action of a particular objectis simply that which makes the object what it is. For a knife it is the ability to cut, for a house theability to provide shelter and security, for a general the ability to win at war. Human virtue is therefore,that which makes humans perform their characteristic function or action well. Aristotle explains thatthe characteristic action of humans, the action that is unique an essential to being human, is living ahuman life in accordance with reason.
He goes on to show that what enables a human to perform hisaction well, that is, what enables humans to live in accordance with reason well, is a certain state of beingor of character. This state of character, according to Aristotle, has to do with a person’s responses topleasures and pains under various situations. The virtuous person knows the best course of action, takesthis course of action, and feels pleasure, or at least no pain, as a result of taking this action. Humanvirtue then, for Aristotle, is this state of the human soul, that is, the state of the human soul such thatthe person in this state chooses the correct actions, at the correct times, for the correct reasons.1After considering each thinkers conception of virtue, a number of similarities can be drawn betweenthe Aristotelian and Platonic theories.
First of all we can see that for each philosopher virtue is thoughtof as a stable or unchanging facet of the individual. For Plato a person’s virtue consists in his knowledgeof the good. It’s not that a person is knowledgeable about some things or at some times and is thereforevirtuous in some aspects and un-virtuous in others. Someone possessing knowledge of the good is ableto determine the good in all decisions, at all times, and will thus be virtuous unconditionally.
Similarlyfor Aristotle, an individual must be thought of as either having virtue, or lacking it. Virtue is thoughtof as a state or condition of the soul. On this view people cannot merely be moved by virtue, or findthemselves to be virtuous in certain situations. Someone possessing virtue is virtuous only as a result oftheir soul or character being in a particular state. Therefore, according to Aristotle virtue is also seen asan overall property prescribed to the individual who is virtuous. Another way in which there seems to beconvergence among the two notions of virtue is in the practical way in which one goes about becomingvirtuous. Plato believes, as we have already seen, that in order to gain virtue your soul must be in somesort of balance, reason guiding thought and action, with appetite suppressed.
He says in the Republicthat in order to achieve this correct balance one must have the correct upbringing. Plato believes that atan early age one must learn to control his appetite by avoiding bodily pleasures, and exercise his reasonthrough abstract thought and contemplation of the forms. In this sense acquiring virtue for Plato requirespractice and control which lead to the correct proportions of the soul. Aristotle’s beliefs fall along theselines as well. Doing virtuous actions is a necessary, not sufficient, condition, for Aristotle. In order totruly become virtuous one must do the virtuous actions and also take pleasure in the virtuous actionthat they choose.
Aristotle believes that it takes repetition of these actions before the correct responses,in terms of feeling pleasure of pain, are formed. He explains in the Ethics that exhibiting moderation innearly every aspect of life and acting as though one were already virtuous, is the ultimate road to thevirtuous state. Here we see that Aristotle, along with Plato, believes that virtue must be gained thoughpractice and a form of self control.Despite the fact that there are ways in which the two theories overlap, the Aristotelian and Platonicconceptions of virtue contain major, fundamental differences. To start with, the source of virtue for thetwo philosophers is completely different.
For Plato virtue comes from the form of the good. Only inknowing the good, which is an independent self subsisting entity, can one be virtuous. Virtue is onlythought of as a characteristic of the person insomuch as they are close to, or come to know, the good.
Plato leads us to the picture that virtue is an altogether separate existence from the virtuous person. ForAristotle on the other hand virtue is intrinsically intertwined with the virtuous person. Virtue actually isa state of being which aids the person living according to reason.
Virtue in some sense is contained withinthe individual and thus for Aristotle is connected with the virtuous person on a basic level. The otherarea of crucial difference between the two ideas of virtue is in the limiting case. Plato’s deep connection ofvirtue with the form of the good actually makes it impossible for a human being to become virtuous. Thehuman soul only truly comes to know the forms, including the form of the good, after death. Althoughmental abstraction, restraint from bodily pleasures, and keeping the soul in the correct proportions willtend one to becoming virtuous, they can only truly become virtuous in the afterlife through direct contactwith the forms. For Aristotle however, we find that the virtuous person is indeed possible.
Once a personis in the state in which they are better able to live in accordance with reason they are, by definition,virtuous. The fact that human virtue can be actualized in a living human brings Aristotle’s conceptionof virtue in sharp contrast to the Platonic formulation.In the end we find that although on the surface the two accounts of virtue may appear to be similar,the underpinnings and implications of the two theories are completely inconsistent.2