Monday, 11 October 2010


Much like Plato, Aristotle's works cannot be summed up in a single blog post. However, two key ideas that influenced Western Philosophy are explained below. These are Aristotle's VIRTUE ETHICS and his views on THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN THE MIND AND BODY

Aristotle was a student of Plato's at the School of Athens. So knowledge was passed from Scorates to Plato to Aristotle. These three are generally considered to be the founders of Western Philosophy.


The History of Virtue Ethics

Aristotle was the founder of virtue ethics and first wrote about it in his work
Nicomachean Ethics. In Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle argues that whenever we do something we do it to gain an end, and that the ultimate end of all ends is the chief good, the greatest good. This is Teleological.

Aristotle believed that the end purpose for a human is happiness.

He also believes that the basic activity of humans is reason, therefore the aim of humans is to reason for a whole or complete life.

Moral Virtues

Moral virtues are qualities of character such as courage, temperance and modesty. These virtues are cultivated through habit. Every human is able to cultivate these virtues through practice.

Intellectual Virtues

Intellectual virtues are qualities of the mind such as wisdom, understanding and judgment. A person is born with these virtues and they mostly cannot be taught. They can only be cultivated by a person through instruction.

The Two Main Principles of Virtue Ethics

The two main principles of virtue ethics are Teleos and the Golden Mean.


Having a teleos is having an ultimate end. Aristotle believed that all human beings have a purpose or function. He believed that humans had to fulfil a goal in life which is their teleos. Aristotle maintained that the purpose of a human being was for them to flourish and develop their characteristics to become a virtuous being. This emphasis was not on what people do, but what people are.

Aristotle maintained that the virtues are those qualities which lead a person to live a happy life such a courage, compassion, honesty or justice. A person who practices these virtues to become better in them is therefore becoming a happy person and reaching
eudaimonia (Ultimate happiness.)

The ‘Golden Mean’

Aristotle believed that when we do something, we do it to gain an end. And the ultimate end of everything is the chief good, the greatest good.

Aristotle also believed that in order to achieve the end, we must practice our virtues to get them perfect. Like an archer would practice to hit the target. As we improve our skill we become happier and live happier lives.

There are moral virtues that are qualities of a character such as courage, wittiness and liberality. We cultivate them by habit. There are 12 such virtues presented in the table below. Each virtue or Golden Mean has a vice of excess and a vice of deficiency.

Aristotle believed that we can develop our virtues by learning from others as they become habit. We must have self control to meet our Golden Mean which is the perfect virtue and not drop into the vice of excess or deficiency.

We know how virtuous we are because of how spontaneously we react to certain situations. By doing virtuous things, we become virtuous.

Aristotle’s Table of Virtues and Vices

Vice of Deficiency

Virtuous Mean or Golden Mean

Vice of Excess
















Want of Ambition

Right Ambition



Good Temper





Ironical Deprecation










Just Resentment


I did my best to transcribe this table into more modern English for the 21st century so people of the modern age can understand it. Here is the table:

Aristotle’s Table of Virtues and Vices for the 21st Century

Vice of Deficiency

Virtuous Mean or Golden Mean

Vice of Excess













Negative Thinking

Positive Thinking



Right Ambition


Bad Temper

Good Temper

Being Irate














Just Resentment


Example of a Mean Action

An example of a mean action would be would be courage. If I do not have enough I am being a coward which means I lack in courage as it is the deficiency. If I am excessively courageous, then I am acting rashly and not thinking about the situation I am in and the possible consequences of the action I am taking. This is the excess of courage.



The Body/Soul distinction: Aristotle’s understanding of the Soul and its relationship with the Body

Aristotle had a Materialist approach to the Body and Soul which means that he believed that the Body and Soul need each other to be in existence. The Body needs the Soul to exist and vice versa. Aristotle said that the Soul is like a skill. Like a good hairdresser, the skill wouldn’t exist without the person like the Soul wouldn’t exist without the Body.

Aristotle believed that the Soul does not exist before the body is born. This is because of his Materialist approach believing that the Soul needs the Body to exist so it cannot exist before the Body is born. However, after death, Aristotle did believe that a part of the Soul did still exist. He refers to this as the nous or reason. This is the thinking element of the soul. Or in other words, the mind. This adds a small bit of a Dualist approach into Aristotle’s theory because the mind is distinct.

Aristotle believed that the components of the Soul are: Movement, Thought, Nutrition and Reproduction. He also believed that the Soul is the Animator or Psyche.

Aristotle believed that the Soul was not specifically for humans. He believed that the Soul had components (as stated above). He believed that humans had 4, movement, thought, nutrition and reproduction. He believed that animals had 3, movement, nutrition and reproduction and he believed that Plants had 2, reproduction and nutrition.

Aristotle believed that the Soul contributed to human existence by being the spark of life and our animator and that it gives us the potential to think consciously.

Ideas about cause and purpose in relation to God: Aristotle’s understanding or material, efficient, formal and final cause

Aristotle believed there were four causes to everything in the universe:

  1. The Efficient Cause: What makes it? This cause explains how something came to be the way it is. This is the source of motion.

  2. The Material Cause: What is it made of? This cause is the matter or material which persists throughout the change. It is what is it is made of.

  3. The Formal Cause: What gives it the shape by which it is identified? This cause is the organising factor, making a recognisable object which we see.

  4. The Final Cause: What is the ultimate reason for it all? This cause is the purpose, the end which the change is sought for.
Aristotle believed that everything has potentiality or actuality. This means that everything has a specific range of potentialities, but only one actuality, what is true of the substance. For example, A wooden table which is entirely made of wood has the potentiality to become a bookshelf maybe, or a wooden chair but in actuality it is always a table.

Ideas about cause and purpose in relationship to God: Aristotle’s concept of the Prime Mover

According to Aristotle, everything must have a purpose and must have a Prime Mover for it to fulfill this purpose. This Prime Mover, According to Aristotle, was God who was the source of all beauty, truth, justice and goodness. The efficient and final cause of the whole universe was God, the Unmoved Mover. Aristotle came up with the Prime Mover through seeing that everything in the universe had a cause and so there must have been a first cause: The Prime Mover. The Prime Mover has no potentiality but is just pure actuality. We can have no affect on this Prime Mover and the Prime Mover is everything pure in one entity. Libby Ahluwalia write in her book Foundation for the study of religion: “The Prime Mover does not start off the movement by giving it some kind of push, but it is the purpose, or the end, or the teleology, of the movement.”

The Prime Mover has to be immaterial and its activity is purely spiritual and intellectual. The activity of God is though. The Prime Mover is motionless and timeless. It is completely outside of the human world and is simply, pure actuality.

A depiction of Aristotle by Raphael in his painting, 'The School of Athens' (1510-1511)

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