Aristotle’s Virtues

Aristotle’s Virtues

Plato and Aristotle from The School of Athens
Plato and Aristotle from The School of Athens

Aristotle was a Greek philosopher who lived during the Classical period of Greece, about 300 years before Jesus.

In his work Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle listed 12 Virtues. They were the ideals, living the mean between excess and deficiency. Life as a balancing act between polar extremes.

“Virtue is the golden mean between two vices, the one of excess and the other of deficiency.”

For example, being temperate or moderate. This is the mean between overindulgence and abstinence.

Virtue comes from Latin, meaning strength or excellence, what we might call moral power.

“Anybody can become angry, that is easy; but to be angry with the right person, and to the right degree, and at the right time, for the right purpose, and in the right way, that is not within everybody’s power and is not easy.”

He believed in a fundamental Goodness. Virtues would help us culture that.

He didn’t see virtue as a feeling but the proper response to a feeling. For example, fear. A deficiency would lead us to cowardice. An excess would lead to rashness. However, with a virtuous disposition, the response would be courage.

We can also apply the virtues to things like social interactions, as with friendliness and wittiness.

The virtues he suggested were cultured by habit. However, I would add that by culturing our deeper nature, we establish the good within. Then we trend toward the virtues automatically. Some of them are qualities described in the Yoga Sutra, for example.

That said, most of us have some areas of life that require more intervention.

Such things require the time to pursue them. As one article observed, the list was designed for upper-class Greek men who were educated and had some luck.

The 12 Virtues:
1. Courage or fortitude
2. Temperance or moderation
3. Generous or charity
4. Magnificence
5. Magnanimity or self worth
6. Ambition
7. Patience or even-tempered
8. Truthful or honest
9. Wittiness or humour
10. Friendliness
11. Modesty
12. Justice and equality

Aristotle described 4 cardinal or primary virtues: courage, moderation, justice, and prudence. The last isn’t on this list but probably should be. I looked at multiple translations and they were quite variable, even in the sequence. Some were missing one, even on university sites.

Here is a table of the virtues with their deficient and excess states:

Deficient Mean Excess
cowardice Courage rash
aversion Moderation overindulgence
stingy Generous extravagant
shrinking Magnificence vulgarity
timidity Magnanimity vanity
undue humility Ambition excess ambition
spiritless Patience irascibility
self-deprecating Truthful boastful
boorish Wittiness buffoon
quarrelsome Friendliness bootlicking
shy Modesty shameless
spiteful Justice envy

The purpose of articles like this is to help us make our habitual response patterns more conscious. Then the opportunity grows to make different choices. This isn’t about seeking new ways to control or to diminish ourselves.

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    1. It’s interesting how sub-cycles of time go. Even though in a descending cycle of the dark age (bottomed about 500 AD), there was a wave of sages and philosophers during that time.

      Some attributed to the period are inaccurate, like Patanjali – he was much earlier. But still, some brilliance flourished while most of the world lived a very basic life.

      I’ve not mentioned Plato and Aristotle here much as their approach was mostly mind-driven, but still, there was some brilliance there. He recognized the virtues were not driven by logic but rather had to be cultured. And the focus was quality of life.

  1. Tim Owens

    “I’ve not mentioned Plato and Aristotle here much as their approach was mostly mind-driven”
    And yet I have always felt Plato’s(Socrates’)analogy of the cave to be one of the finest examples of spiritual insight in the ancient Western world.

    1. Hi TO
      Fair enough. I was not meaning to dismiss them.

      What I meant was they developed philosophy and approach’s to maximize quality of life. But they lacked transcending, making it much harder to achieve. Not to mention it was something mainly for rich men.

      However, it did create a foundation for later when it was revived, becoming the seeds of democracy, the scientific method, and more.

  2. Christine

    I’m not a scholar of Greek philosophy but in reading more about Socrates himself – primarily through his recounted voice, and that of his (female) teacher Diotima, in Plato’s The Symposium – I came to believe he must have been an awakened being. I would also completely believe that his student Plato did not attain the same state as Socrates, but was a good and noble mind-based student.

    Thanks for sharing this David – the Deficient/Mean/Excess qualities seem very much like an extension of the gunas.

    1. Hi Christine
      That’s very possible. He was a luminary that has had a long-term impact. Yet he was also somewhat limited by the time and collective he lived in.

      I will note though that there are some who have many tastes of deeper reality and thus develop a clear vision. Yet they’re not yet able to sustain Self Realization, likely because of a lack of samadhi.

      Some do enter a life almost-awake and require little practice to shift – just a little time and processing of karma. However, such people often don’t know how they got there so have difficultly imparting that to students.

      Great point on the gunas. Sattva as the mean, tamas as the deficient, and rajas as the excess.

  3. Christine

    Thanks for your reply David – I always enjoy your insights. What you describe about having clear vision but without sustained Self Realization sounds like a so called ‘neck-up’ awakening without embodiment in the heart & gut, is that right?

    1. Hi Christine
      I use the term “awakening” as equivalent to Self Realization or Cosmic Consciousness. ie: when the Self wakes up to itself through this form.

      People can have the “lights come on” within when the third eye chakra opens, prior to awakening. If makara has been reached (just above the 3rd eye), the kundalini stays up and what opens stays open. For example, I gradually unfolded the structure of creation in the experience well before Self Realization.

      But yeah, I wasn’t entirely grounded, so it was a “lollipop” style of functioning. Most of the energy was in the upper chakras. Life brought physical experiences to help correct that.

      So yeah, not embodying the heart & gut yet, but nor the head.

      (for readers unfamiliar, the first stages of enlightenment are sometimes described as head, heart, gut aka CC, GC, UC aka the descent. The terms relate to the release of the 3 ego contractions while the merger of Shiva & Shakti descends into the system. However, these may or may not be released with those shifts – for some they come later.)

    1. Hi Guru
      Good question. Yes. Of course there’s always a balance. We need a little tamas to sustain a physical form and rajas for digestion, etc. The key is the shift to dominant sattva. Then the balanced virtues becomes pretty much automatic, refined perception develops, the heart can open, and so forth.

      This does take time though as there’s a lot to shift and a lot of habits and embedded contractions that will resist this. But with a good practice and good habits, we can turn the tide.

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