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Plato and Aristotle’s "Virtuous Person" Ideology and Its Influence in Greek Culture

Adjunct Professor of English at Bryant & Stratton College. He has a M.A. in English from National University.


Philosophies on Virtue

The Greeks were the first to initiate the unreservedly rational investigation of the universe and thus became the forerunners of Western philosophy and science (Craig et al, pg. 70). In the 5th and 4th centuries B.C.E. philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle applied rationality in correspondence with an inquisitive approach to the study of morality and political issues in the life of the Greek polis, or city-state (Craig et al, pg. 70). One of the most influential philosophical arguments that changed Greek culture was the “Virtuous Person” argument. Both Plato and Aristotle believed that virtue was the core of ethical issues in Greek society; however, their deeper views on the subject ultimately clash (Craig et al, pg. 69, 70).

Plato’s philosophical argument for virtue begins with the Four Cardinal Virtues and an analogy comparing the parts of the soul with the social structure of the polis (Soloman, pg. 614). Plato compares the structure of the polis, which begins with the rulers at the highest class, guardians at the middle class, and the bottom being the working class, to the divisions of the soul, which are, respectively, rational, irrational, and spiritual (Yu, lecture notes, 2011). Plato explains that the divisions of the polis cannot fight each other but are always mad because of conflicting interests (Yu, lecture notes, 2011). Plato said that the same issue is occurring within our own souls. The number one corruption amongst the citizens of Greece, according to Plato, was adultery, followed by money at number two, and social networks at number three (Yu, lecture notes, 2011). This corruption begins with a lack of virtue. Plato’s Four Cardinal Virtues, which are wisdom, courage, moderation, and justice, are respective to the divisions of the polis and a good person must have all four virtues (Yu, lecture notes, 2011). Plato says that the ruling class has wisdom, the guardians have courage, and the working class has moderation by being obedient to the ruling class then, have justice and injustice (Yu, lecture notes, 2011). Plato also says that in order to have all four virtues, you must control the parts of your soul and let the rational part be the ruler, or else you will become corrupt (Yu, lecture notes, 2011).

Most conflicts of your soul develop from your appetitive, where the thing you desire is itself a desire for its simplicity (Yu, lecture notes, 2011). For example, thirst itself is a desire for drinking simplicity, in other words, you will drink whatever is available whether it be wine or water. However, Plato then argues that once what we desire is a qualified drink, your thirst becomes a qualified desire, for instance, you will be thirsty for a particular drink such as wine and no other drink will satisfy your desire (Yu lecture notes, 2011). This part of the soul is the irrational side and it is the driving force behind some of our not-so-great motives. Our rational desires often conflict with our appetitive or irrational desires and sometimes we have opposite or contrary desires at the same time (Yu, lecture notes, 2011). For example, the irrational part of an individual may want to go out to a party the night before a test to relieve their stress and blow off some steam, but the rational part of the same person may opt to stay in for the night and study instead to help their chances of getting a better grade. The third division of the soul, the spirit, is our emotions (Yu, lecture, notes). Our spirit has no rational calculation, therefore it cannot be rational or irrational, it simply is composed of our anger, sadness, fear, and other emotions that are simply inevitable (Yu, lecture notes, 2011). For example, a child can have anger or sadness, but it is not due to a rational calculation, it is merely an emotion that surfaces. Back to the Four Cardinal Virtues, Plato said that in order to have all four virtues, one must let the rational part of their soul rule over the others. The rational soul must be our wisdom, our spirit must be courageous, and we must be moderate in our appetitive (Yu, lecture notes, 2011).

This argument was somewhat influential amongst the Greek polis. Some of the not-so-successful arguments within this are when Plato attempts to stop our corruption, sex, money, and social networks through three different solutions (Yu, lecture notes, 2011). To prevent adultery, Plato suggested that society have a common wife system, legally binding marriage (Yu, lecture notes, 2011). To prevent corruption regarding money, Plato simply suggested that money itself should not be touched and that no one should give or get money (Yu, lecture notes, 2011). Lastly, to prevent social networks, Plato suggests abolishing the notion of “family” to prevent favoring the interests of a family member over virtue and morality (Yu, lecture notes, 2011).

These ideas were not all that successful in changing the polis. Mainly because virtue is something that one is born with and can only be discovered but oneself, according to Plato (Soloman, pg. 72). The idea that virtue cannot be taught by any other than oneself is depicted in Plato’s dialogue The Meno, where such ideas as the immortality of the soul, the theory of knowledge as recollection, and the slave-boy experiment (Soloman, pg. 72-78). Plato argues that knowledge comes from within ourselves and not the external, this is shown in the slave-boy experiment where a randomly selected slave-boy, through very careful questioning from Socrates, was able to speak “well and fluently” on the subject of doubled square and the size of a given square without any background knowledge in mathematics (Soloman, pg. 72-78). Just as the slave boy was able to recollect mathematics from a past life, Plato says that all knowledge must be attained through recollection, including virtues. (Yu, lecture notes, 2011) This idea influenced the education system of Greece because recollection is not passive, according to Plato (Yu, lecture notes, 2011). In order to recollect knowledge, it must be done by challenging the mind with questions just as Socrates challenged the slave-boy; knowledge cannot be “spoon-fed”. (Yu, lecture notes, 2011) Virtue, too, can only be taught by oneself, and philosophy is the subject that helps people to remember virtue (Archibald, pg. 43). Plato’s philosophy of Four Cardinal Virtues and ethics served the Greek polis by essentially advising its people on how to be a good person (Archibald, pg. 43). However, by the 5th century, this simple code of morals was in many respects, out of date (Archibald, pg. 34). The organization of the state and society had undergone a series of changes that resulted in a more complex society and as a consequence, masses of social and moral problems were only partially solved by Plato’s Four Cardinal Virtues (Archibald, pg. 35).

Student vs Master

Plato’s most renowned pupil, Aristotle, owed much to the thought of his master, but he took many new twists on popular philosophical beliefs and led the polis and its people in new directions (Craig et al, pg. 68). Aristotle’s virtue of ethics depicted in The Nicomachean Ethics is regarded as the best systematic guide to ancient Greek moral and ethical thinking. (Soloman, pg. 478) Aristotle’s view on virtue differed from Plato. Aristotle believed that virtue is a rational activity in correspondence with a rational principle and he also believed that there were many more “virtues” than only those mentioned in Plato’s Four Cardinal Virtues. (Soloman, pg. 478) Also, Aristotle claimed that being virtuous must be the way to “the natural good for man”, which Aristotle claims is what all men desire for its own sake and not for the sake of anything else. (Soloman, pg. 478) In The Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle finds that this ultimate end is eudemonia (Often referred to as happiness or the literal term, human flourishing), which is what all men desire for its own sake and it is the natural good for man and it can only be achieved through virtuousness. (Yu, lecture notes, 2011) Aristotle then gives us an idea of what happiness is in The Nicomachean Ethics as it can be inferred as- happiness is living according to rationality, the exercise of our most vital faculties. (Soloman, pg. 481) Aristotle says that happiness is the good of a man is that which is “natural” to him, and that means what is special or unique to him as well. (Soloman, pg.482) According to this interpretation, simply living cannot be happiness because even a cow has an end to its life and nutrition and grow to become healthy cannot be happiness because a plant has the same “goal”. (Soloman, pg. 482) But what is unique to man, Aristotle concludes, is his rationality and his ability to act on rational principles. (Soloman, pg. 482) Thus happiness, according to Aristotle, must be an activity of the soul in accordance with perfect virtue, perfect virtue being “excellence” or self-realization. (Yu, lecture notes, 2011)

Aristotle’s notions of different virtues are much different than that of Plato. Instead of only having four virtues, Aristotle had many moral virtues, also, virtuousness was not merely a universal principle as it was depicted in Plato’s theory, but it was now moderated on more-or-less a sliding scale that is called the “means between the extremes” argument. (Soloman, pg. 485) Aristotle would say that a courageous person is one who is motivated by a sense of honor, not the fear of punishment or the desire for reward, or merely as a sense of duty. (Yu, lecture notes, 2011) The courageous man is afraid, because without fear there would be no courage and the man who feels no fear is in the face of danger and is rather rash. (Yu, lecture notes, 2011) According to Aristotle, a courageous person must have just the right amount of cowardice and just the right amount of rashness. (Yu, lecture notes, 2011) However each situation is different, according to Aristotle, because in some cases a person must be rasher or more cowardly, a virtuous person must be able to gauge an incident with the appropriate amount of virtue. (Soloman, pg. 489)

Lastly, Aristotle in The Nicomachean Ethics gives us his view of the good life for humankind; living life in accordance with virtue, but also, ideally, a life of intellectual activity, or according to Aristotle, “The Life of Contemplation”. (Soloman, pg. 489) In this section of The Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle essential says that the philosopher is the happiest of people “since it is reason that in the truest sense is the man, the life that consists in the exercise of the reason is the best and pleasantest for man – and therefore the happiest”. (Soloman, pg. 491) In addition, Aristotle’s ideal philosopher does not only contemplate, but they may enjoy pleasure, wealth, honor, success, and power as a man among men. (Soloman, pg. 489) He is virtuous and chooses to act virtuously like all good men but he also has an understanding and an appreciation of reason that makes him “dearest to the Gods and presumably the happiest amongst men.” (Soloman, pg. 491)

Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics and this depiction of being a “virtuous person” was very popular amongst the Greek polis. (Yu, lecture notes, 2011) Many of Aristotle’s statements are backed up by quotations from history, or illustrated episodes in the legal contests and every-day routine of the Athenian citizen. (Archibald, pg. 134) He ransacked the consciousness of the Athenian dicast, an Athenian who performed the functions of both judge and juror at trial, or for a code of moral responsibility. (Archibald, pg. 134) Many of the refinements which he introduced with a regard to voluntariness and involuntariness of a virtuous action are traceable in the speeches of Antiphon, Athenian that was a major contributor to political theory and founded a precursor argument to natural rights theory. (Archibald, pg. 134) Aristotle also initiated many other of his arguments through his virtuous person idea such as his writings on politics which suggest that some people are fit to rule and other are not; this also justified slavery as they were people without the rational capacity to rule, so it is in their best interest to be ruled (Baumer, lecture notes, 2011).

Plato and Aristotle agree that excellent moral character involves more than just a simple understanding of the good. They both believe that virtue requires a coexistence between cognitive and affective elements of an individual. Aristotle attempts to explain what this harmony consists in by exploring the psychological foundations of moral character (Homaik,, 2011). He thinks that the virtuous person is characterized by a non-stereotypical self-love that he understands as a love of the exercise of fully realized rational activity (Homaik,, 2011). Yet this self-love is not an individual achievement, it is development and preservation require both friendships in which individuals come to desire the good of others for others' own sakes and political institutions that promote the conditions under which self-love and friendship flourish (Homaik,, 2011).


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Craig et al. (2006). The heritage of world civilization. (9 ed., Vol. 1). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

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Yu, J. (2011). Lecture notes. University at Buffalo, New York. Retrieved from Introduction to Philosophy 101.