Comparison and Analysis of Plato and Aristotle on the Virtue(s) in the Eudaimonism Ethical System

Socrates Aristotle All references/citations are derived from Approaches To Ethics by Jones, Sontag, Beckner & Fogelin
The Republic
Nicomachean Ethics

      With the system of Eudaimonism, Plato and Aristotle attempt to arrive at a theory or system or set of moral principles or values dealing with what is good and bad and with moral duty and obligation. They further go on in applying these principles of conduct in governing an individual or group. Their main concern with conformity to this standard of right is the idea of virtue. They also seem to place one virtue as being of particular moral excellence.

The standard and widely accepted definition of Eudaimonism is having a good attendant spirit or a theory that the highest ethical goal is happiness and personal well-being. This definition of Eudaimonism is adequate, but it appears to lose some of the specificity of Plato’s account.

In regard to the differences in Plato and Aristotle’s view of ethics, two things are obvious: (1) they seem to arrive at similar conclusions on many topics by what appears to be different means and (2) Plato seems more concerned with virtue in action, while Aristotle is more concerned with providing the “dictionary” definition of virtue.

For both Plato and Aristotle the good appears to be happiness. For Plato, this is where his interpretation of the meaning of Eudaimonism takes precedence. Eudaimonism takes a three part definition in this respect: (1) living in harmony with one’s self (i.e. justice), (2) living in truth to one’s self (i.e. integrity), and (3) which is somewhat of a combination of the above two: a feeling of happiness or self-satisfaction associated with the activity of self-fulfillment. This happiness, which appears to be the good, is only attainable through the exercise of certain virtues (i.e. cardinal virtues).

In the Republic, it is clear that both the individual and the state must contain the virtues of wisdom, courage, temperance, and justice in order to have a functional system or person. In addition, Socrates’ life as expressed in the Apology demonstrates that integrity is also necessary in order to keep these virtues in tact; and in turn, integrity will lead to happiness. For it is from living in truth to himself (i.e. being a philosopher, gadfly, and midwife), that Socrates achieved happiness which came from conducting inquiries.

Aristotle concludes in Book I, Chap. 7 of the Nicomachean Ethics that the good is happiness. He goes on to suggest that “Human good turns out to be activity of soul in accordance with virtue” (Nicomachean Ethics, p. 52/2). Aristotle’s concept of good appears to be the same as Plato’s.

One way in which Aristotle refers to virtue is as the potential excellence of an individual, which seems to indicate what Plato meant. For it is this “excellence” that Plato’s individual strives to achieve in order to attain happiness. Likewise, it is from the soul (i.e. daimon) where this excellence comes from in both cases. Aristotle also adds that this is an activity. This seems to imply a process which can only continue through a display of the virtue of integrity. So Plato and Aristotle both appear to place happiness on the reliance of one’s daimon and continual exercise of self-fulfillment through integrity.

Contrary to today’s meaning of daimon as demon, the ancient Greeks referred to a daimon as one’s innate potentiality or excellence located in the central self or soul. A daimon appears similar to what today one refers to as natural talent or ability or God-given talent. The concept of a daimon suggests this idea well, for it is necessary for one to find this innate potential in order to enjoy life to its fullest (i.e. Eudaimonia). Plato and Aristotle both seem to point to knowledge as the means for discovering one’s daimon.

In Book IV of the Republic, Plato discusses the three virtues which hold both the ideal state and the ideal individual together which consist of: (1) wisdom which operates in the rulers (state) and reason (soul), (2) courage which operates in the auxiliaries (state) and the will (soul), and (3) temperance which operates in the workers (state) and the appetite (soul). Aristotle approaches the soul somewhat differently in that he only suggests two parts of the soul (Book I, Chap. 7/13, Nicomachean Ethics): (1) the rational element and (2) the irrational element. Aristotle’s rational element can be viewed as containing both reason and the will for it must exercise thought (contemplation) and obedience. The irrational element has an appetitive part which must exhibit temperance in order to obey the rational as well as a vegetative element which appears to simply be one’s life-force.

What keeps all three elements in the state and individual working properly is justice. Plato suggests in Book IV of the Republic that the state is just when each person is performing in society that which is one’s duty according to nature (i.e. the daimon). In the same way, the individual is just only if the several parts of one’s nature (i.e. soul) fulfill their proper function. Plato then states that only when this is true of an individual “will he be ready to go about whatever he may have to do” (Republic, p. 41/1). In accordance with this statement, justice is the only way that a state will be productive. Although justice holds all the elements together, it is reason/rulers (i.e. wisdom) which is in control.

Aristotle hints at the idea of justice when he states “For it is not merely the state in accordance with the right rule, but the state that implies the right rule, that is virtue” (Nicomachean Ethics, p. 68/1). The right rule seems to imply justice while those in the state who determine what justice is are the rulers. By doing so, the state attempts to desire the right thing (i.e. the individuals’ innate potential). This seems to be the form of education that Plato suggested by placing the rulers in charge with a need to know the good for the state; so that they may set up a state where people can discover their innate potential.

Aristotle also suggests that reason needs to rule in the individual. He states that “The life according to reason is best and pleasantest” (Nicomachean Ethics, p. 72/1). It also seems evident because Aristotle suggests that it is by wisdom that the soul possesses truth; not to mention, that he states in Book X, Chap. 7 of the Nicomachean Ethics that contemplation (an activity of the soul) is the highest human activity and the purest exercise of the rational capacity (i.e. reason). In order to attain one’s innate potential, one must have self-knowledge. It appears that one gains wisdom through experience; and thus, gains knowledge; so it would be through reason that one is able to arrive at their innate potential.

Socrates states in the Apology (p. 23/1) that “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Socrates seems to have a two-fold purpose in expressing this: (1) if one does not question one’s life (i.e. search for meaning), they will not discover their innate potential and (2) if they do not discover their innate potential, life will not be happy (self-satisfying). Socrates also states that “Thinking one knows what one does not know is the most reprehensible form of ignorance” (Apology, p. 21/1). Socrates means that if one thinks they know something (even though they do not), they will not know to search for it; so thus, one will not attain the self-knowledge necessary in order to discover one’s daimon.

Many things which Aristotle discusses in the Nicomachean Ethics suggests that wisdom (i.e. knowledge) is necessary for the good life which leads to happiness in an activity in accordance with virtue (i.e. one’s daimon). Aristotle seems to express that the most important virtue for humans is intellectual (i.e. knowledge through contemplation) and though people fulfill themselves in different ways, reason (contemplation) must play a significant role in determining what that fulfillment is (Book VI, Chap. 7/8, Nicomachean Ethics). It also follows that when Aristotle states in Book VI, Chap. 6 that happiness is in those activities which are desirable in themselves that that which is in accordance to virtue (i.e. self-knowledge which leads to knowledge of one’s daimon) is most desirable. This all leads back to what Aristotle expresses in Book I, Chap. 13 (Nicomachean Ethics, p. 53/1): “Happiness is an activity of soul in accordance with virtue.”

Both Plato and Aristotle seem to imply the virtue of integrity as being of great importance. Socrates demonstrated true integrity (living true to one’s self) in the Apology when he died for what he believed he was supposed to be doing according to nature (i.e. his daimon or innate potential, which was philosophizing and conducting inquiries). In Book I, Chap. 7 of the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle states that the final good (i.e. daimon) is self-sufficient which means that when isolated it makes life desirable and lacking in nothing. This being the case it seems obvious why one would build the trait of integrity through self-fulfillment for they would be in a state of completeness and they could not be driven from their life-course for any reason just as Socrates in the Apology. So it follows that the virtue (i.e. daimon) of a man makes both him and his work good (Book II, Chap. 6, Nicomachean Ethics). This resembles what Plato suggests by the virtue of justice in that the whole society will be productive if everyone follows their daimon (Book IV, Republic).

Contrary to the popularly-held interpretation that Plato believes virtue is knowledge, it appears that he believes knowledge is a virtue but not that knowledge is Virtue itself. Plato and Aristotle both seem to hold that one’s innate potentiality (i.e. daimon) is virtue and even in this respect, it is virtue only for that particular individual.

An area where there appears to lie some difference between Plato and Aristotle is concerning virtues as a whole, because Aristotle concentrates a bit more on the subject than does Plato. He offers a more abstract definition. Both authors seem to point to wisdom as the primary or cardinal virtue because it is through wisdom that one is able to obtain the self-knowledge necessary to realize one’s daimon. Aristotle states it directly when he claims in Book X, Chap. 7 of the Nicomachean Ethics that the activity of reason (i.e. contemplation) whereby one acquires knowledge is the highest virtue in humans. With Plato there is a tendency to name integrity as the primary virtue because of Socrates’ display of it in the Apology and the definition of the term Eudaimonism which contains integrity in it. However, from Book IV of the Republic, it appears obvious that one must have knowledge in order to know one’s daimon which leads to the cultivation of integrity; thus, without any knowledge, there is no integrity. Integrity comes into view as the second fundamental virtue in that it causes one to continue following their daimon.

So it has been shown that Plato recommends five cardinal virtues for the living of a moral life which are those of: wisdom, courage, temperance, justice, and integrity. Aristotle appears to agree with this and expresses that these virtues as well as all other virtues exist in different measures in each individual. Both authors contend that virtues must be developed in an individual through the exercise of the virtue.

Aristotle explains how the virtues are actually exercised. He explains that virtue is a state of character concerned with choice because moral virtue is actually a mean between two extremes, one of excess and the other of deficiency (Book II, Chap. 6/9, Nicomachean Ethics). So it follows that one should aim at the intermediate.

The idea of choice brings up another concern which Aristotle addresses. Aristotle states that freedom is self-determination (i.e. one is free if the moving principle of their conduct is internal) (Book III, Chap. 1, Nicomachean Ethics). Aristotle’s view takes into account choice as being voluntary and since for an action to be voluntary means that one is free, it follows that when a choice is made, one is considered free and is held responsible for the action; thus, virtues and vices are voluntary because they are in one’s power to choose (Book III, Chap. 2,3,5, Nicomachean Ethics).

Aristotle’s definition of freedom seems to be based on what Plato would have expressed. In the Crito, Socrates expressed that he was free in making his choice to live in Athens and since this is so, he has made a binding agreement with the state and cannot disobey the laws and attempt an escape as suggested by Crito. So it follows that even though Socrates was being put to death, he was still free.

There is only one problem that seems to exist in the system of Eudaimonism. Eudaimonism appears to be lacking in one virtue which is that of humility. Both Plato and Aristotle hold philosophers in the highest regard and apparently themselves as well. Plato states that either philosophers must become kings or those who are kings now must become philosophers or else there can be no rest from troubles (Book V, Republic). Aristotle states that the philosopher is in the best state of mind and is the dearest to the gods because they are most akin to them and that philosophers will be happiest of any other people (Book X, Chap. 8, Nicomachean Ethics).

In addition to being the “virtues ethics,” Eudaimonism also appears to be the brainchild of Plato. Except for a few helpful insights and further clarifications, Aristotle appears to repeat the same exact ethical system described and developed by Plato but in a more “flowery” language. However in fairness to Aristotle, he does provide more information than Plato into the workings of virtues as well as ethics with politics. Nevertheless, it is obvious that Aristotle’s more than 20 years experience as a student of Plato’s had a huge impact and influence on his thinking.

The recent rise in Eudaimonism over the past two decades is a likely benefit for all of society. It seems apparent that individuals need to develop a good moral character in thought before they know what action to take in a given situation. Through the discourses of Socrates by Plato and the discussions of Aristotle, one develops a clearer understanding and application of “character ethics.”

Overall, Eudaimonism appears to be the most useful and practical of the “Big Four” ethical systems. It does not focus on merely actions in a given situation as utilitarianism and Kantianism do and it does not rest one’s ability of self-actualization in dependence on the will of a supernatural (i.e. God) as Thomism (Roman Catholicism) does.

Eudaimonism is not concerned with what is the right thing to do in a given situation but what is the best kind of a life a person can live or what is the good life for a human being. In order to address these questions, one must attain a quality of character that is good in itself and helps one to live a good life (i.e. virtues). Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle have created this type of workable system of ethics or morals based on virtues and it is called Eudaimonism.

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