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Plato’s and Aristotle’s Views on Golden Mean: Analytical Essay

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Part I – Plato’s quote

“It seems to me that a fit body doesn’t by its own virtue makes the soul good, but instead the opposite is true- a good soul by its own virtue makes the body as good as possible (Republic III, pg. 443).”

In the discussion of virtue, specifically as to its inter-relatedness to the soul, Plato claims that intrinsic virtue alone is the cause of a person’s good actions, and therefore, this results in a good physical state of the individual. An example of a good athlete who partakes in good activity is given in the passage following this quote. A good and disciplined athlete takes part in training that is suitable for him in order to perform well in his respective sport. It is key for him to take part in an ordered regimen in order to achieve success, which is due to him acting upon virtuosity in order to achieve a good physical outcome. The virtuous athlete knows what is good for him and therefore, he does what is good for him. The athlete holds virtue that also enables him to act in a manner that benefits his extrinsic body and life.

This quote stems from Plato’s overall view on virtue, which is if one knows the good, he will always do the good. A man’s soul will act upon the knowledge of what is good and in turn, the body will be driven to execute and physically do the good that is caused by the knowledgeable soul. In analysis, there seems to be a discrepancy when it comes to an individual’s virtue and the physical state/outcome that results. Particularly when he experiences an opposite outcome (or lack thereof) of an action that results from a virtuous soul that knows the good. For example, an individual who may have an intrinsic virtuous soul and wish for themselves to be able to exercise this part physically may be unable to do so. Aristotle gives the example of the tortured man who, by no fault of his own, spends his days in a dungeon being tortured perhaps the man may have a virtuous soul to exercise a good outcome for his situation, but due to his unfortunate circumstances outside of his control, will never have the opportunity to exercise virtue that results in something physically good. In a situation such as this, it seems to be that in order for good virtue to exist, some sort of extrinsic physical outcome must result from it in order for good virtue to be validated.

Part II – Aristotle’s quote

“Thus, virtues arise in us neither by nature nor against nature. Rather, we are by nature able to acquire them, and reach our complete perfection through habit (pg. 845).”

Here, Aristotle describes his idea of how to gain virtue and providing an explanation of how a man can become more virtuous. Part of what virtue consists of for Aristotle, are the activities of the soul that one engages in. Extended, these activities, which are what one’s soul engaged in/with on a regular basis, indirectly assist in producing virtues that need to be exercised and practiced. In addition, it is taken into consideration that these activities may be determined by environmental factors outside of one’s control. However, despite this, the activities themselves are what may inhibit or promote virtuosity in one’s soul. Reconsidering Aristotle’s example of the tortured man, Aristotle considers that the man may have the capacity to exercise his virtues and become a virtuous person. However, he is not given the opportunity to engage in activities that will lead him to become virtuous. Therefore, being virtuous requires the ability to exercise these virtues and also inherited luck to be in a position that allows for him to do so. Furthermore, virtue to Aristotle means for a man to discover and act according to the golden mean in situations that occur when testing his capacity for lack of or excess for a given scenario.

An appropriate reaction to a given predicament or situation is what is accounted for in a virtuous man. However, the appropriate reaction to Aristotle does not exactly seem innate. It is a reaction that is the golden mean that is learned through habitual behaviors and conditioning by a healthy environment and positive relationships.

Similarities

There are two similarities in these two quotes between Plato and Aristotle. It appears that virtue is seen as a state within an individual in both views. Defined, Plato claims that in order for a man to be considered truly virtuous, the man will always act upon knowledge of the good. If he knows the good, he will do good at all times unconditionally. Therefore, the default state for a truly virtuous individual is to engage with the good at all times. This quote seems to be evident of this principle in that the outcome of a good and virtuous soul is one that is extrinsically good as well. Similarly, virtue to Aristotle is seen as a state in which someone ought to achieve in order to be virtuous. Despite the default state for a virtuous person as being the golden mean between two possible outcomes, an existent state of virtuosity exists for him as well.

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Another similarity is that both views claim that virtue is to be practiced through a form of moderation and self-control. In Plato’s Republic, he claims that there are four categories of the soul: courage, wisdom, justice, and moderation; the main goal of these four states in order to reach virtue is to have a balanced state of each category in which no single part of the soul dominates another, creating an equilibrium. Similarly, the golden mean to Aristotle is comparative. Even though the golden mean will result in a skewness towards one side or the other dependant upon the individual’s soul and capacity to be virtuous given circumstances, a sense of balance between both sides is still needed to cultivate virtue. The golden mean is dependent upon an individual’s circumstances and how they exist in the world for their actions to be deemed as virtuous or not, including their capacity for and ability to act upon virtue. Take, for example, a small child and a large man who are both put in the predicament of acting upon a flight or fight response to intruders in their home. It would be thought of as virtuous for the small child to run and hide away from the introducer as they would have no means or have the ability to fight. On the other hand, it would be virtuous for the large man to protect the child in the home and to fight the intruder given that he has the physical means to. The golden mean of virtue in both cases would be more skewed towards the other end of the spectrum ranging from cowardly to overly confident. The child would be more towards cowardly, where the man would be more towards overly-confident. However, even though the virtue may be different dependent upon both persons, they still hold virtue to their own capacity given their individual circumstances.

Differences

Despite similarities between Plato’s and Aristotle’s views on virtue, there are a number of differences to note. Specifically, the relation of virtue to an individual. For Plato, virtue hinges only on the knowledge of the good itself, and for one’s soul to know the good, this knowledge then drives one to act out the good externally. Therefore, it seems to be that Plato views virtue as a characteristic of the soul that is separate from an individual and their circumstances. For Plato, one will always do what is good if they know the good internally, and only if the outcome coincides, can the individual be considered to be virtuous. Since knowledge of the good is what virtue consists of, the individual is separate from virtue itself and perhaps the individual is seen as only a vehicle to act upon the knowledge of the good.

On the other hand, Aristotle’s view on virtue in relation to an individual is one that is very much intertwined. Virtue to Aristotle is seen as something that is existent within an individual themselves. Therefore, since virtue can reside within an individual, it is something that can be exercised and improved upon. An individual, given that they are lucky enough to be placed in circumstances that will allow them, can work toward becoming more virtuous. Virtue to Aristotle is not a separate entity that is based on a sort of specific knowledge, which is the opposite of Plato’s belief that virtue is dependent on knowledge of the good. Thus, for Aristotle, the instances in which virtue can exist within an individual is quite different. Someone can very much know the good, however, in Aristotle’s view, it is recognized that their knowledge of the good does not mean that they are able to act upon the good, perhaps due to circumstances outside of their control. Thus, even if they cannot act upon the good and exercise their virtue, their inability to do so does not affect their capacity to be virtuous people to begin with.

Analysis

I would contest to Aristotle’s perspective on virtue as being the one that I agree with the most. My reasoning for this is primarily due to the premise that virtue is seen as something that is intertwined in the individual and can be exercised in order to ameliorate.

Aristotle’s view of virtue better addresses how we may think about people’s actions through empirical observation rather than a pure rationalist view. This empiricist view is sufficiently more convincing since it seems to be that individuals, given fortunate circumstances, are able to learn and promote better virtue through practice. It can be argued that exercising virtue is how one can become a better person in order to perform and partake in activities that further the chance of the person living a good life and achieving Eudaemonia. Virtue in Aristotle’s view is something that can be practiced instead of an abstract, stagnant entity that exists in a separate realm and is only tapped into when one correctly seeks it out in themselves. For example, consider a child who had been raised by parents who were racist and through his upbringing, had ended up turning into a racist adult. Perhaps due to other factors such as being around other individuals who were racist and was unable to interact with people of color due to the geographic region he resided in. It can be argued that the child did not have a healthy upbringing/current healthy environment, leaving him unable to exercise virtue that allowed him to become accepting towards other people and to become a better person due to his acceptance of others. Conversely, a child who had been raised by parents who were not racist and the opportunity to meet others who appeared different to him and befriend others who were is much more likely not to be racist because he had been raised in a healthy environment that allowed for sufficient betterment of his virtues. For Plato, the child would have been on the same playing field, in that the child in the first example would be considered as ignorant since he did have the knowledge of the good, which is that being racist is non-virtuous. However, he just did not have the proper insight to tap into the source of knowledge of the good within him, unlike the latter example of the child who had a proper upbringing.

In opposition, one could claim that virtue is inherent and non-changing in an individual. If one is truly virtuous, they would not need to practice virtue since it is inherent in them to begin with. Therefore, virtue is either evident in an individual or not. This would mean that one would be virtuous by design and this would leave no room for improving one’s virtue as it is not something in one’s soul that can be exercised. The situation or environment that an individual is in would be insignificant because if an individual is truly virtuous, they would always act virtuous independent of any circumstance or predicament that are in. A man who is virtuous would always do what is correct despite any circumstances since his soul has virtue. For instance, consider a situation with a child who lived in a broken household where he did not have any supportive parental figures in his life. The child was placed in truly unfortunate predicaments in his upbringing and from an outsider’s standpoint, certainly did not have the external support to grow up to become a virtuous person. However, despite this, the child had grown up to become a very virtuous man who had overcome the unfortunate events and circumstances that had occurred to him through no fault of his own. This man could be considered to have a virtuous soul by design. Since this man was created with virtue to begin with, no circumstance would be a determining factor of his ability to be virtuous or not. On the contrary, another example would be a man who had become engaged in criminal activity and poor behavior/choices despite the very fortunate circumstances that he had been in. This man had a healthy upbringing with good friends, family, and supportive relationships in his life. He had nearly everything taken care of for him and did not have insecurity of any sort in relation to his need to live a healthy life. In fact, he had a near-perfect life where all of his needs were met. However, he still succumbed to engaging in non-virtuous activities because he did not have any virtue to begin with. He could not have a more fortunate circumstance to be placed in and due to his inherent lack of virtue, he had chosen to lead a life filled with negative actions. If a virtuous man was in his situation, he would not engage with poor activity and refrain from succumbing to such actions.

In response, this viewpoint appears to fall short in taking into consideration any possible environmental influence as to how it could possibly affect an individual. Perhaps the virtuous man, despite his unfortunate circumstances, has had small interactions in which he had benefited from in order to influence him to make the decisions that he did. Perhaps this man had the drive to overcome his situation and had learned through examples by the people in his life on what not to do or how to not interact with others. This man could have had inspiration and motivation to not live the life that the people around him live and wish to strive for a life that is better and more virtuous. It seems to be that there must have been at least a few environmental factors, no matter how small or inconsistent, that had influenced this man to wish to strive to lead a virtuous life. As for the example of the man who had been involved in criminal activity despite his good fortune, perhaps he had decided to so due to environmental factors. Perhaps he has a mental illness or personal issues that would influence to act a certain way or something of the sort that is not addressed or incorporated into the argument. In addition, this view leaves no room for practicing/increasing the capacity of virtue and erases any possibility of varying levels of virtue given particular circumstances. Perhaps someone could act somewhat virtuous, albeit not completely in a given situation. For instance, consider a child who is learning to be virtuous. Typically a child learns from their parents and if their parents have good virtue, this will be taught to the child and the child will act through example. Perhaps the child is learning that sharing is a virtuous activity, but will only share certain things and not others. It would seem that the child may not have mastered acting upon virtue, but is making progress towards this. In the opposing view, it is to be said that the child’s actions will result from inherent virtue that is neither taught or can be improved upon.

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