What is it to act and to feel virtuously?

This paper explains Aristotle’s position on what acting and feeling virtuously comprises of, how he understands us to become virtuous, and how virtue is dependant not just on acting well, but also on feeling well. I shall look at several secondary texts to hopefully present a coherent picture of how Aristotle would answer the question of what it is to act and feel virtuously, while introducing claims and arguments from other philosophers that should shed light on this picture.

According to Aristotle, ‘what makes life worth living is eudaimonia; and to live a life which can be characterized by eudaimonia is precisely the aim of morality’ (Hughes, 2005, p22). Aristotle says that ‘the good for man is an activity of the soul in accordance with virtue’ (1098a17-19). Virtue (arête), can also be understood here as excellence; so to be virtuous is to perform the function (ergon) of manexcellently. The only way this can be achieved is to satisfy the capacities of ones soul well; the defining capacity of the human soul being rationality hence it is this that we should aim to satisfy well; yet Aristotle distinguishes between two types of rationality: intellectual, and moral (1103a5-8): the former being most Godlike. Viz., an excellent man, (a virtuous man), is one whom satisfies his rational capacity well.

This leads to a still hotly debated issue of the Ethics applicable to virtue, ‘If there are more kinds of virtue than one, [we should live] in accordance with the best and most perfect one’ (1098a16-18), so is not clear whether we should pursue an intellectual or moral life. With intellectual reason being most Godlike (1178b21-24), this appears to be the ‘best’, but such a life seems incompatible with a moral life, for morality will be sidetracked for the gain of intellectual wisdom. A potential solution to this problem is owed to Gerard Hughes;

‘Both theoria and the life of a morally admirable member of the community are explained by the fact that a fulfilled life involves using our mind on both levels [intellectual and moral]…and explains why we value using our minds well to think about both practical and theoretical questions…theoria grows out of and completes the moral life of the good citizen’ (Hughes, 2005, p50)

So, by combining theoria (that is, more abstract reasoning, which is more in line with the Godlike intellectual virtue) with practical issues we are able to more fully fulfill our potential understanding of them, thereby further fulfilling ones life. Though this view has been debated, is seems that such a compromise between the dominant and inclusive view of eudaimonia will enable one to pursue a fuller picture of what it is to be virtuous that will sit more comfortably in light of both Classical Athenian and modern cultures than a purely dominant or inclusive view singularly could. It is this idea of conjoining both theoretical and practical matters to fulfill our function that I shall use to explain the actions and feelings of virtue.

With much attention within the Ethics going to moral concerns, I too shall focus primarily on the same.

In section six of Book II, Aristotle defines a moral virtue as ‘a purposive disposition, lying in a mean that is relative to us and determined by a rational principle’. This purposive disposition, he holds, is cultivated through habituation which should begin at childhood (1103a). So, by recurrently performing virtuous acts, one becomes virtuous by habit. Similarly, recurrently performing vicious acts develops a vicious character. But this is not all there is to be said. ‘Children start by accepting reasons that adults give them…then are taught to pay attention to their feelings (Adams 2006, p215)’, that is, children are told what is right and wrong, and eventually, or at least hopefully, this will lead to their feeling some sense of satisfaction in performing ‘right’ actions and shame in performing ‘wrong’ actions. This emphasis on not just acting in the right way, but also feeling in the right way is incredibly important to Aristotle, for a person performing a virtuous act merely because it is said to be virtuous is nothing more than enkrateia: a person with self-control who only appears to be virtuous by performing virtuous acts. Bernard Williams posits such a person would be ‘minimally virtuous’ (Williams, 1995, p13), but I cannot see Aristotle sitting comfortably with this. I.e. if an actor plays the part of a Good Samaritan, this in no way makes him even ‘minimally virtuous’, though he may appear so. Similarly, aiding an injured person in the street solely to impress friends may appear virtuous, but is in no way such. Arguably, this may even be considered vicious.

Aristotle distinguishes between these apparently virtuous acts and actual virtuous acts with an analogy with art in Book VI, iv, in which he says art is ‘a productive state that is truly reasoned, while its contrary non-art is a productive state that is falsely reasoned’, thereby suggesting acts that fall under the label enkrateia are ‘non-virtuous’; a parallel with ‘non-art’, because it has been falsely reasoned yet is still productive, as opposed to Williams’ idea that it is ‘minimally virtuous’.

Thus, it is having the right reasoning resulting from a fixed disposition, in accordance with the right actions that make a man feel properly, and can thereby be called virtuous. ‘Excellence of character is concerned with both emotions and actions, not with actions alone’ (Urmson, 1980, p159) and ‘it is with pleasures and pains that moral goodness is concerned’ (1104b9-10). Here arises a problem concerning virtue and its parallelism with what could appear to be prima facie some denomination of Epicureanism. Aristotle says ‘Pleasure in doing virtuous acts is a sign that the virtuous disposition has been acquired’ (1104b1), but when we consider delivering a coup de grace to an injured friend or fallen comrade (an act many would see as heroically virtuous), then the thought of feeling pleasure in this instance seems nothing short of callous. Some sense of satisfaction of having done the noble thing may be felt, but pleasure, even in a ‘virtuous’ person, is unlikely.

This problem stems from a misunderstanding of Aristotle’s use of the term ‘pleasure’, as this seems to imply some kind of sensual enjoyment. Aristotle says ‘with regard to particular pleasures many people go wrong in many ways…In enjoying the wrong objects, others with enjoying things with abnormal intensity, or in the wrong way’ (1118b22-24). With this in mind, looking again at the coup de grace example, it becomes clearer that one could experience ‘pleasure’ in the right way in such a situation. To cache this out further, instead of feeling a kind of callous enjoyment or sensual pleasure from performing a mercy killing, one would feel properly, that is, feel saddened at the situation, yet simultaneously feel a sense of ‘satisfaction’ (for want of a better term) that one is performing what appears, rationally, to be the ‘right’ thing to do. Being at ease with ones decision and action will presumably override the feeling of remorse one would otherwise feel, thereby lessening the pain that could have been felt.

It must be remembered, however, that Aristotle does not believe that moral conduct can be put forth as a rigid set of rules, as not only does a virtuous act depend on the situation, but on the agent also, which is why he puts forward the ‘Doctrine of the Mean’. This mean, Aristotle says, ‘is not one and the same for all’ (1106a33), thereby leaving moral conduct not as descriptive, but as evaluative. ‘Aristotle is pointing…to a general evaluative attitude’ (Burnyeat, 1980, p72) which is reliant on rational judgments to decide on right conduct. Hence, the ‘appropriate’ feelings one should habitually acquire as a virtuous person are not dogmatically put forward. They will vary between persons and situations.

The accumulation of these ‘appropriate feelings’ seems to lead to the idea that over time, in retrospect, one will have a great feeling of fulfillment and satisfaction in their moral conduct over the course of a lifetime. This may be what Aristotle is talking about when he discusses Eudaimonia: the content of which I will not discuss here. This does, however, appear to be another concept of ‘pleasure’ that the virtuous man could be said to experience, which is suggested by Kosman, whom states that virtue is ‘not a concept to do with individual moments in an agent’s life, nor with individual single actions’ (Rorty, 1980, p115). Instead of siding with only one of these views, it could be said that the pleasure (or feeling of less pain) a virtuous person experiences is twofold. In one sense it will be felt because of anindividual virtuous action, in another sense, it will be felt in a more holist way in retrospect of a virtuous life. There seems to be no reason why only one of these forms of ‘pleasure’ could be experienced.

So far, it has been explained that virtue is a conjunction of acting and feeling appropriately according to Aristotle’s mean. Acting appropriately without the right feeling is enkrateia. Feeling appropriately without acting appropriately is ‘compatible even with being asleep, or with leading a life of inactivity…nobody would call such a life happy’ (1095b33-35), but how can we harmonize both acts and emotions? Aristotle states, ‘the origin [of moral action] is choice, and the origin of choice is appetition and purposive reasoning’ (1139a31-32), both of which we are able to train through habituation, but emotion, or feeling- the other half of virtue- seem not chosen for ‘when we are angry or frightened, it is not by our choice’ (1106a2). It is these feelings, however, that impel us to act, and if we cannot choose them, how can we habitually come to be virtuous, for habituation, and thereby virtue, seem to rely on choice.

By appealing to Hughes’ point, mentioned earlier, if we introduce theoria here, and acknowledge that ‘desire must pursue the same things that reasoning asserts’ (1139a25), then by theoretically contemplating ones choice – as ‘choice is a better test of character than actions are’ (111b3-4) – it seems that we can in some sense sway our feelings based on rationality. A suitable question that is answered by this point is that asked by Burnyeat; ‘How can I learn that something is noble or just by becoming habituated to doing it?’ (Burnyeat, 1980, p74). As was mentioned earlier ‘a productive state is one that is truly reasoned’, equally, a virtuous choice is one that is, or has been, truly reasoned. So, when we feel inappropriately angry, this is because we have not utilized theoria or at least some kind of more abstract reasoning to clarify our own judgments and understanding. In this sense, feelings can be internally swayed, thus keeping this thought in line with how Aristotle may respond, as this utilizes both our theoreticaland practical reasoning, showing how we can learn to appreciate something as being noble or just through theoria.. It is through using both intellectual and moral reasoning that appropriate feelings can be indirectly chosen.

Kosman expands on how this issue could be understood; he states that feelings, understood as a choice, are ‘the abilities to be open to certain affections and closed to certain others’. Viz. we have the ‘power to be affected in certain ways’ (Rorty, p111-112) and eventually certain feelings become ‘second nature’. To paraphrase Hughes, it is through ‘truly reasoning’ that we are able to be open ‘to certain affections and closed to certain others’. It is through habitually reasoning over situations, choices, actions and emotions that we develop habits of feelings, as we come to understand ourselves and the world more fully. Kosman seems correct in saying that ‘one does not have direct control over one’s feelings, and in this sense they are not chosen’ (Kosman, 1980, 112) but if we understand feelings as being chosenindirectly by habituating virtuous conduct and contemplating over what is done, we can, it seems, train ourselves to feel appropriately; to not over- or under-react. For if a fearful person recurrently performs dangerous or brave acts, gradually, fear will diminish so that it is felt at a more appropriate level. It is this training, and rationalizing over choices (to realise that situation A is not as dangerous as was initially thought, or that Situation B is in fact the right thing to do), than enables us to indirectly choose our feelings and emotions.

Overall, for man to act virtuously he must;

  1. Know what he is doing
  2. Choose what he is doing, and choose it for its own sake
  3. Choose it from a fixed and permanent disposition (1105a31).

It is important to note that although a person with a fixed and permanent virtuous disposition will feel what has been described as ‘pleasure’ in performing virtuous acts- thereby providing reason for believing the virtuous life to be a good life (as it ‘will be most pleasurable when it is most perfect’ (1174b23), perfect being most virtuous) – the primary result of a virtuous act is not to be seen as this pleasure, otherwise this theory would be no more than a succinct form of hedonism. The good act should be seen as the good consequence of being virtuous. The virtuous person performs this virtuous act as an end in itself. He sees it as intrinsically valuable. A byproduct of this is the ‘pleasure’, or proper feeling; or an awareness of the goodness of the act, or fulfillment, felt by the virtuous man for performing the act, all of which contribute toward eudaimonia.

In light of this, Burnyeat’s claim that ‘the growth of enjoyment goes hand in hand with the internalization of knowledge’ (Burnyeat, 1980, p76) and the idea that once one learns that something has intrinsic value, the consequence is ‘that I take pleasure in doing them’ (Burnyeat, p78) seem correct providing the loose sense in which Aristotle puts forward the terms ‘pleasure’ and ‘enjoyment’ are kept in mind.

Even if what has been said is the true interpretation of Aristotle, the point of what exactly virtuous action is has not been addressed. I have time to only briefly discuss this here, but I believe that establishing the dependency of virtue on the interrelationship between acting and feeling appropriately is the primary focus of studying virtue, for without this, one cannot continue.

In short, Aristotle holds that ‘excess and deficiency fall under evil, and the mean state under good…Virtue then is a mean condition, inasmuch as it aims at hitting the mean’ (1106b27-35). As was said previously, the mean here is not meant in a mathematically calculable sense. It is dependant on the situation and the agent, and is defined rationally in each case. So, to look at an example used in the Ethics(Appendix I), the sphere of action or feeling of fear and confidence can be explained in a tripartite form. Its excess is rashness, its deficiency cowardice, and its mean courage. This mean then, is a virtue. Viz. to be courageous is to feel both fear and confidence in the right way for each specific occasion, and to act appropriately in respect of this (See Book II ix.).

A clarification to make here is to point out that by ‘mean’, Aristotle does not imply mere moderation, for there surely are situations that require more than moderate courage, or more than moderation in ambition or patience. By ‘mean’, what is meant is an appropriate response. It is also worth mentioning that over the course of the past two and a half millennia, western culture has come to adopt other virtues that would not have been so well valued in Classical Athenian life, such as Christian charity and humility, so it is worth considering these also.

Briefly though, there is an argument worth mentioning against this idea of the Doctrine of the Mean, as some apparent virtues do not seem to lay themselves out in this tripartite form. Such a virtue would be justice, for it does not seem possible to have an excess of justice. ‘Some virtues, such as charity, indeed don’t obey the mean: you can’t love God and yourself and neighbor too much. But they are the exception and not the rule.’ (Chernikov, 2009). But Aristotle would not agree with this, for ‘injustice aims at the extremes’ (1134a1), that is, both extremes; ‘Maximum advantage for oneself, minimal advantage to the other party’ (1134a7). We simply give the same name to both. This seems plausible, and even if there are some virtues which cannot be explained in similar terms, it still seems appropriate to say that acting and feeling, in respect of these, and all, virtues, in the right way is what is important in having a virtuous character. The Doctrine of the Mean is a method to determine most virtues but is in no way put forward dogmatically, to exclude exceptions to the doctrine.

In conclusion, this paper has hopefully put forward a coherent way in which to understand Aristotle’s view of virtue. Indeed there are apparent vagueness’ and contradictions with Aristotle’s lines of thought, but these only seem to occur on a narrow reading of the text, and seemingly can be reconciled to create an arguably satisfying picture of what it is to act and feel virtuously. I have not had space here to delve into considering whether the virtues Aristotle puts forward are in fact virtues, but it seems that this is a problem with the application of his theory, not with his theory as a whole. It is, however, important to remember to keep in mind difficulties with translation, especially with terms such as ‘pleasure’, ‘function’ and ‘Eudaimonia’. These terms are often meant in a broad sense that are not easy to grasp intuitively, so should be considered in this light.


Adams, R, A Theory of Virtue, (2006), Clarenden Press

Burnyeat, M, Aristotle on learning to be Good, in Essays on Aristotle’s Ethics, (ed. Rorty), (1980) University of California

Chernikov, D, Aristotle’s Doctrine of the Mean, (2009), (http://dmitrychernikov.com/blog/2009/02/17/aristotles-doctrine-of-the-mean/)

Eterovich, F, Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, Commentary and Analysis, (1980), University Press of America

Hughes, G, Aristotle on Ethics (2005), Routledge, London

Kosman, L, Being properly Affected: Virtues and Feelings in Atistotle’s Ethics, in Essays on Aristotle’s Ethics, (ed. Rorty), (1980) University of California

Rorty, A, Essays on Aristotle’s Ethics, (1980), University of California

Ross, D (translated by), Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics, (1998), Oxford University Press

Urmson, J, Aristotle’s Doctrine of the Mean, in Essays on Aristotle’s Ethics, (ed. Rorty), (1980) University of California

Williams, B, “Acting as the Virtuous Person Acts,” in Aristotle and Moral Realism, ed. Robert Heinaman, Westview Press, 1995.

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