What is Virtue? – Character Development and a Virtuous Life

In The Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle asks how we can achieve eudaimonia or the good life—how can we live a successful, flourishing life. He identifies virtue (aretê) as central to a good life. Virtue or aretê is about pursuing excellence. Being virtuous is all about developing self-control, a strong character, and a strong mind.

Aristotle believed that we cultivate and develop a strong character and self-control by developing reason and our intellect. When we lack control, we are guided not by reason and intellect but by, for example, our emotions and appetites/desires.

Virtue, then, is all about finding balance or control. Aristotle thought that there are two vice-states for each virtue, namely: one of excess, and one of deficiency.

“Now it is a mean between two vices, that which depends on excess and that which depends on defect.”

Aristotle

To be in either vice-state, to tend towards excess or deficiency, is to lack self-control. In contrast, the virtuous state is the mean between these extremes. It represents self-control, balance, and self-possession.

“Virtue, then, is a state of character concerned with choice, lying in a mean…being determined by a rational principle.”

Aristotle

To have a virtuous character is to have the strength of character to act in accord with the mean, to do what virtue requires. We lack control, a strong character, when we are led by our emotions or desires. In such cases we are not defined by reason and are not making an active choice. Virtue is about taking possession of oneself, of defining oneself through reason and intellect. We define ourselves by making rational choices, by choosing the mean instead of losing ourselves to either extreme.

The virtuous state, the mean, is one defined by balance and control. The individual who is virtuous is able to flourish because he has possession of himself and will not be thrown off course by chance or the ups and downs that are a part of life. As Aristotle writes, “he will bear the chances of life most nobly.”

“he will bear the chances of life most nobly.”

Aristotle

Aristotle identified habit and practice as crucial to developing virtuous dispositions. In short, we need to practice doing what is right to help form the correct traits or dispositions that are in accord with virtue. It’s about making a rational decision to start living a certain way. To that end, we can each begin by making a choice to work on ourselves, to start cultivating a strong character and a strong mind.

Virtue, like anything else, is a commitment, it is a choice to start taking control of your life. When you decide to start exercising, for instance, you make a decision to start improving your physical health. At first, you may find it difficult to stick to a routine and meet your goals. As you progress and as exercise becomes a regular part of your schedule, your routine, you will find it easier and easier to do.

It makes sense that Aristotle thought the development of a strong character and self-control was essential for flourishing and success, because they are indicative of an individual who actively chooses what he wants and how he wants to live. Aristotle thought that a good life is an active life, and that the path to success and flourishing lies in self-development and the formation of a strong character.

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