Aristotle's Ethics Study Guide (Choose to Continue)


Aristotle's Ethics: Book 4

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Aristotle continues his analysis of virtues by moving onto liberality, the right attitude to money and property. Prodigality is the excess and illiberality or stinginess is the deficiency. A liberal man gives with a good end in view, in the right way: to the right people, in the right amounts and at the right time.


As he only takes from the right source, his own property, he takes care of it, so that he will always have something to give. And he won’t give to anybody and everybody, so that he has something to give to the right people at the right time and in the right circumstances. The liberality of someone is judged in relation to the giver’s resources: it is not how much is given that matters, but the disposition of the giver. The liberal man is not acquisitive – he doesn’t value money for its own sake, but only with a view to what he can give.


Magnificence or munificence is a special kind of liberality involving generous, but judicious spending from a public-spirited motive. The deficiency is pettiness, while the excess is an ostentatious lack of taste, when people spend in the wrong circumstances and in the wrong manner. A munificent person spends gladly in the right amounts, in the right manner, without calculating the cost, but always for a noble purpose. But someone who spends more than he should in a vulgar way often on trivial occasions for show, aims just to show off his wealth and gain admiration, not for noble motives. 


Magnanimity or justifiable pride and self-respect is grounded in an accurate estimation of one’s own worth in terms of the high honors one deserves. A magnanimous person claims and deserves high honors. Anyone who claims honors and is not worthy of them is not just conceited, but foolish, and nobody who acts virtuously is foolish. Someone who deserves honors, but doesn’t claim them is low-minded and pusillanimous.


Aristotle then considers the disposition of a good man who has reason to be angry. The mean is good temper or patience, whereas the excess is irascibility or bitterness, while the deficiency has no real name. An irascible man gets angry too quickly with the wrong people, for the wrong reasons, out of proportion and for too long. In contrast, the patient man of good temper becomes angry on the right occasions, with the right people, at the right time and for the right length of time.


Deficiency in this virtue is reflected in servility and slavishness. Those who don’t get angry when they should, or not in the right way, at the right time or with the right people, are foolish: they lack sensitivity or perceptiveness. To put up with insults and not defend yourself or your friends is servile.     


Aristotle next examines the social virtue of friendliness. The excess of this is obsequiousness, while the deficiency is cantankerousness. An amiable person is friendly not just to his friends, but to all, regardless of whether he likes or dislikes them. He refuses to join in pleasures he regards as dishonorable and disapproves of those that result in pain.


As for the social virtue of self-expression, this has as its extremes boastfulness and self-depreciation. The mean is someone who is sincere in his daily life and speech, acknowledging truthfully the qualities he possesses. In contrast, the boaster claims to possess distinguished qualities he doesn’t have or has to a lesser degree, while the depreciator or ironic man disclaims qualities he possesses or depreciates them.


Another virtue involves social conduct: the virtue of being good company with good conversation, the mean of which is wittiness. The excess is buffoonery, exhibited by those who try to be funny at all costs regardless of their victim’s feelings. The deficiency is boorishness, people who say nothing funny themselves but take exception to the jokes of others. A person who achieves moderation is described as tactful. He says what it is right to say in the right way, while he listens to things properly. A witty man amuses others through his intelligence and by being nimble-witted, not through innuendo or by mocking others.




Most students reading this book for the first time are struck by the elitism of the society that emerges from Aristotle’s descriptions. This is particularly apparent in his views on magnanimity, which is, along with justice, one of the two highest virtues. Aristotle describes it as “a sort of crown of the virtues, because it enhances them and is never found apart from them” (page 95, 1124a). To be magnanimous a person must possess all the previous virtues that he has discussed: courage, temperance, liberality and magnificence. With these virtues great men claim and deserve great honors, the greatest of the external goods and what great men think themselves most worthy.


It’s clear from his description that such men are wealthy and well-placed figures in the community. Therefore this is not a virtue accessible to everyone. This strikes a marked contrast with our own egalitarian and democratic culture and with the Christian morality in the west, which emphasises the equal dignity and worth of all human beings. Elitism and inequality in ancient Greek society was taken for granted and humility, which in ours is generally seen as a virtue, to the ancient Greeks would be regarded as a vice.


In the late nineteenth century, Friedrich Nietzsche highlighted just these differences in his general assault on Christian ethics. He believed the motive power of all life is not the will to live, but the desire to grow, appropriate and gain in power, in short, the “Will to Power.” Thus human fulfilment requires the rejection of traditional values, including the Christian religion, which condemn all these vital energies that drive us to achieve strong, vigorous, fulfilling lives. Christianity just promotes weakness and self-denial, a slave morality that turns weakness into a virtue in order to elevate the meek.


However, it would be wrong to assume that Aristotle approved of such elitism to the same extent and in the same way as Nietzsche. The system of ethics he describes is one that all rational beings can adopt. It is not just the elite that can enjoy the pleasures that come from living virtuously. As he outlines the mean of each virtue and how best we can meet it, he is describing a set of moral habits that we should all aim at to guide our conduct.


What’s more, as this suggests, this is not a simple set of moral rules handed down by the elite, like some ruling class morality. It is more complex than that. As he describes each virtue he is outlining a method of practical reason in which we learn not just to act in a particular way, but at the right time, with the right people, in the right manner and with the right intentions. A patient man of good temper not only moderates his anger, but becomes angry on the right occasions, with the right people, at the right time and for the right length of time.



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