On Chris Panza’s blog a week or so ago, Aristotle’s ethics came up during a discussion on Confucius and possible distinctions within the concept of ren or that of the junzi (check it out). This got me to thinking about Aristotle and a problem I took him to solve in the Nicomachean Ethics by way of his distinction between natural virtue and full virtue—namely, the problem of how a person with a particular “virtue” (I use the scare quotes here to mark the ambiguity of the term ‘virtue’ here) could ever perform a non-virtuous action, or one not in keeping with that virtue, in unguarded moments, etc. Here’s what I say about Aristotle in a comment to the post:
He considers cases in which one has a disposition to act a certain way, but external forces keep one from performing the acts one intends to, or other considerations (for example, one act is even more virtuous than another) get in the way.
If I remember correctly, he goes so far as to say that if a person is thwarted in this way from performing virtuous action very often, then the disposition that person has toward this action does not count as a virtue. He is able to maintain this (although it’s not explicit, but has to be interpreted) due to his distinction between “natural virtue” and “full virtue”.
So, after looking back through the NE after my move back to Connecticut, I noticed that Aristotle never actually explicitly says anything that exciting, but I think we can construct this interpretation of what Aristotle does say in various passages in the NE. I’d simply been reading Aristotle this way so long that I thought he said it outright. Anyway, here’s some argument:
The key passage for the natural virtue/full virtue distinction is NE 1144b1-1145a6. Here he explains that the difference between natural virtue and full virtue is phronesis, possession of which unifies the virtues and makes a natural disposition a full virtue. The phronimos of necessity possesses all the virtues together. One might possess some natural virtues without others, however. These natural virtues seem from this passage to simply be the same thing as the full virtues without the unity to other virtues, without rationality leading them, or without requiring successful virtuous acts connected with the naturally virtuous disposition one has “of nature” (something one’s born with, perhaps).
If we then consider what Aristotle says about external goods and their relation to eudaimonia, in Book I in NE 1098b32-1099a5 and NE 1099a32-b8, we can begin to see how the connection is made. It’s worth the space here to quote one of the above passages fully (Ross/Urmson translation):
(NE 1099a32-b8) “…it [happiness] needs the external goods as well; for it is impossible, or not easy, to do noble acts without the proper equipment. In many actions we use friends and riches and political power as instruments; and there are some things the lack of which takes the lustre from blessednes, as good birth, satisfactory children, beauty; for the man who is very ugly in appearance or ill-born or solitary and childless is hardly happy, and perhaps a man would be still less so if he had thoroughly bad children or friends or had lost good children or friends by death. As we said, then, happiness seems to need this sort of prosperity in addition; for which reason some identify happiness with good fortune, though others identify it with excellence.”
Keeping this in mind, let’s return to virtue. For the cultivation of the virtues, it is necessary to practice virtuous acts, as Aristotle explains at NE 1103a26-b2:
“…of all the things that come to us by nature we first aquire the potentiality and later exhibit the activity […] but excellences we get by first exercising them, as also happens in the case of the arts as well. For the things we have to learn before we can do, we learn by doing, e.g. men become builders by building and lyre-players by playing the lyre; so too we become just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate acts, brave by doing brave acts.”
Thus, one might have “natural virtue” in the sense of having a disposition toward generosity, etc., but if they are unable (for whatever reason) to practice generous acts, they cannot gain the full virtue of generosity. Aristotle can sensibly maintain this by employing the distinction between natural virtue and full virtue, although he doesn’t mention this distinction until much later in the NE. One may not have a particular virtue (although one does have a disposition toward it) simply because one does not have the opportunity to practice acts connected with the disposition—for example, a completely poor person may have a disposition toward generosity, but without the opportunity to transform this disposition (a mere natural virtue) into a full virtue through practice (which seems that it must be connected to the habituation to reasons), the poor person cannot be generous in the full-blown sense. The opportunity spoken of here is also related to the need for external goods mentioned above in NE 1098b32-1099a5 and NE 1099a32-b8. That doesn’t mean this poor person has nothing, though—they have a natural virtue (I can see Aristotle saying “and this is better than nothing…I guess…”). Part of the process by which this natural virtue can become a full virtue, however, will have to do with gaining phronesis, and thus all the other virtues, without which one cannot be fully virtuous.
It seems to me Aristotle must have thought that there are plenty of people around who have various natural virtues, but that no one exists or probably had ever existed who was a phronimos. In this way, we can liken the phronimos to Confucius’ 聖人 sheng ren (“sage”). They are both ideals almost unattainable for real people. But, although Confucius gives us the more attainable goal of becoming junzi, Aristotle seems only to offer the phronimos, giving us the pinnacle but nothing less. Perhaps the idea here was that if we aim for the highest ideal, we’ll get farther than if we aim for something lower, whereas Confucius took a more practical approach.
Anyway, this is the idea—any thoughts on this interpretation? Is this taking the natural virtue/full virtue distinction to do more work than Aristotle intended it to do? (this is one possible worry)