Aristotle's Ethics Study Guide (Choose to Continue)


Aristotle's Ethics: Book 6

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Some virtues are ethical, they are of the character, others are of the intellect. Now Aristotle analyses the intellectual virtues. There are two parts to the soul: one rational, one irrational. The rational can be divided into two parts: one through which we perceive unchanging principles and the other through which we contemplate things that are variable. The first we call scientific and the other the calculative or deliberative part, because we don’t deliberate about things that are invariable. We must, therefore, make clear the best state of each of these parts, because that will be the virtue of each. As we have seen already, the virtue of something is related to its proper function.


There are three parts of the soul that control action and the attainment of truth: sensation, intellect (intuition) and desire. Sensation is not the origin of action. As moral virtue involves making choices and these are deliberate desires, it follows that if the choice is to be a good one, our reasoning must be true and our desire must not only be right, but pursue the same thing as our reasoning asserts. This is practical reason, in which the truth we arrive at must correspond with the right desire.


Action comes about as a result of choice, which is the product of desire and purposive reasoning. Therefore, choice necessarily involves a certain moral state, which is the product of thought and character. But thought alone is not enough; the process is only started by purposive and practical reasoning. We all make choices and act with some purpose in mind, but a good act is an end in itself, in that it contributes to the good life, and something we desire. Therefore, choice is either a desiring intellect or intellectual desires and in this lies the principle of man, who is defined mainly by his intellect, in other words, by the union of reason and desire. Both rational parts of the soul and their respective virtues have as their task the attainment of truth.


There are five ways in which the soul arrives at truth: art, knowledge (scientific), prudence, wisdom and intuition. Art is concerned with producing something – bringing it into existence. To think by art is to think about how we can produce something which may or may not exist. Art is concerned with production, not action.


Someone with prudence or practical wisdom can deliberate about what is good for him, what is likely to promote best his interests, and what is good for life as a whole. But we don’t deliberate about invariable things, things that can’t be changed, or are not in our power to change, so prudence cannot be scientific knowledge. Neither can it be art, because art aims to produce something beyond itself, whereas prudence is just about doing well. Hence it must be a disposition of true reason concerned uniquely about doing things that are good and bad for man. 


As for intuition, this is different from scientific knowledge, which is concerned with forming knowledge about things that are universal and necessary, but it is demonstrable knowledge, in contrast to art and prudence which are variable. The first principles of science cannot be grasped by science, art or prudence, but only by intuition. They are also no concern of wisdom, because the wise man can always demonstrate some things.


Wisdom is the most complete or finished form of knowledge. The wise man must know not only what follows from first principles, but must have a true understanding of those principles. Therefore wisdom must be scientific knowledge and intuition. It cannot be prudence and political science, because these are concerned with what is good for each individual and even animals can judge what’s best for them and their survival. This would mean there are as many different wisdoms as there are animals. Wisdom is science and intuitive knowledge of those things that are most precious. Wisdom is unchanging, whereas what is prudent is always changing, thus wisdom is superior to prudence.    


Prudence is not concerned just with universals, but with particulars too, because it is concerned with practical things and how to produce the best. This explains how somebody without theoretical knowledge can be more effective in practical affairs than somebody who does have theoretical knowledge. It also takes time to learn because it is learned from experience. Unlike scientific knowledge it apprehends the last step, because this is the thing to be done. This is the opposite of intuition, which apprehends definitions. Prudence apprehends the ultimate particular which can only be apprehended not by scientific knowledge but by perception.


Understanding is that faculty whereby we call someone “intelligent.” It is concerned with those things that cause perplexity and call for deliberation. In other words, it’s concerned with the same sphere as prudence, although they are not the same. Prudence is concerned with imperatives – what we should and should not do – while understanding only makes judgments. A sympathetic judgment is correct judgment that decides what’s equitable. A correct judgment is one that arrives at the truth. These faculties – judgment, intelligence and intuition – are thought to be gifts of nature, but wisdom comes from experience. Older people have an insight from their experience which enables them to see clearly.


Wisdom and prudence are virtues – one of one part of the soul, the other of the other part. Wisdom is a part of virtue as a whole and produces happiness by its exercise. The full performance of a man’s function depends upon virtue and prudence: virtue ensures the correctness of the end and prudence the correctness of the means towards it. The importance of prudence is revealed by the fact that just because some people perform just acts doesn’t mean they are just. Similarly a person can perform the acts of a good man without being a good man. They must be done by choice and for the sake of the acts themselves. Virtue makes the choice correct, but carrying it out through all its stages is not a matter of virtue, but of some other faculty.


Cleverness enables us to carry out the actions that we need to in order to achieve our aims. If the aim is noble, cleverness is praiseworthy; if it is ignoble, cleverness is unscrupulous. Prudence is not the same as cleverness, but does imply it. We cannot see this good end without being virtuous. Only a good man can see this, because wickedness distorts the vision. Therefore a man cannot be prudent without being good.


Virtue in the full sense implies prudence. Without it there is no virtue. When prudence exists in the complete sense, all other virtues are present. Socrates was wrong in believing that all virtues are forms of prudence, but was right in asserting that they imply prudence. We always talk about virtue “in accordance with the right principle” and the right principle is prudence. Virtue is not merely a state in conformity with the right principle, but one that implies the right principle and the right principle in moral conduct is prudence. It is not possible to be good in the true sense without prudence or to be prudent without moral goodness. 


A man described as good without qualification possesses all the virtues and possession of the single virtue of prudence carries them all. Choice cannot be correct in default of prudence or goodness, because one identifies the end, the other makes us perform the acts necessary to achieve it. But prudence doesn’t have authority over wisdom any more than the science of medicine has authority over health. It doesn’t use wisdom, but provides the means for its realisation. Therefore it issues orders not to it, but on behalf of it.




Aristotle devotes this book to describing the five intellectual virtues: knowledge, art, prudence, intuition and wisdom. This may seem odd in a work that describes how to act morally and lead a virtuous life, rather than how to think well. But all are important in helping us recognize the mean in all our actions, so we can act in accordance with it.


In particular, Aristotle insists on the importance of prudence or phronesis, which we must develop to attain moral virtue and lead a virtuous life. Prudence is the intellectual ability to deliberate on our actions and find the mean in them. Without it we cannot reveal the moral virtues we must pursue to lead good lives. All virtues, he claims, imply prudence. When we define virtue we not only describe what sort of state it is and what its objectives are, but also add that it is “in accordance with the right principle” (page 165, 1144b), and this right principle corresponds with prudence. He insists, “it is not possible to be good in the true sense of the word without prudence, or to be prudent without moral goodness” (page 166, 1144b). They are, in effect, both different sides of the same coin: “virtue ensures the correctness of the end at which we aim, and prudence that of the means towards it” (page 163, 1144a).


But still, he warns that it is possible to perform the acts of a good man without being a good man. So we need more than prudence: not only must we know what the good is and use our practical reason to deliberate carefully on the means of achieving it, but we must choose and desire it for its own sake.


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