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15

May

2020

Virtues of Character in a Time of Corona: An Aristotelian Point of View

Written by: Dorothea Frede

 
 

The most important virtues in our present situation are undoubtedly patience, self-restraint, and forbearance.  Yet none of them is contained in the catalogue of virtues in Aristotle’s ethics (see Nicomachean Ethics II 7).  This is not because his assessment of the conditions of the good, active human life is particularly optimistic or because he does not countenance what some regard as self-abnegating Christian virtues.  The point is rather that dispositions, like patience, are ubiquitous.  They do not have a specific field of application, and can therefore not be acquired by training and habituation through particular kinds of action that provide, at the same time, the training in and habituation to the corresponding emotions.  Courage, for instance, according to Aristotle is not acquired through habituation to facing evil of any kind; it is limited to a soldier’s comportment towards the risk of wounding or death in battle.  Moderation is not acquired by dealing with any kind of pleasure whatsoever, but only with that of food, drink, and sex.  The reason for this restrictive construal of virtuous action is not hard to find: without a specific field of action and determinate objects of emotion, Aristotle’s conception of virtue as the right intermediate disposition between excess and deficiency would make no sense, so the respective actions and emotions that constitute the virtue have to be commensurable.  It is impossible, however, to compare the kind of courage, the actions and emotions, that are necessary to face poverty with those needed to face a threat to one’s life. 

If Aristotle were asked what place we should assign to patience, self-restraint, or forbearance − virtues that were not unknown to the Greeks − he would reply that they are the preconditions of any kind of virtue of character.  They are what we would call ‘higher-order virtues’.  But are these virtues not also acquired by habituation, by systematic training through the appropriate actions that condition the character of all human beings?  The higher-order virtues are clearly not with us from birth, although some people seem to be more capable of patience, self-restraint, and forbearance than others, and differences in that respect manifest themselves from an early age.  But the training in these dispositions does not consist in special exercises of habituation of the kind Aristotle presupposes in the case of courage, moderation, liberality etc., that have their special field of application: people have to learn how to cope with physical danger, temptation by physical appetite, or the request to assist others in money matters by specific forms of exercise or practice, and not just by growing up in a normal way. 

Patience is, instead, required for any kind of interactions with other people, just as are self-restraint and forbearance.  These universal virtues are not based on a special kind of habituation and training.  And there is no point in comparing the patience of standing in the queue in the supermarket with the patience of dealing with a naughty child who is tired of staying indoors, or with the patience needed for carrying out all the many necessities of hygiene.  There is, therefore, no point in looking for a standard that determines the right mean, excess or defect.  These universal virtues are acquired, if they are acquired, by whatever activity humans engage in from early on.  What child or adolescent has not heard the admonition to be more patient, to restrain themselves, and to treat others with more consideration?  There are no special activities, though some ways of performing them are more suitable than others.  Certain games allegedly are good training-grounds for patience and self-restraint.

Our present crisis no doubt requires all those universal kinds of virtues to a high degree.  But what room is there for the particular kinds of virtues on Aristotle’s list?  Apart from moderation, a virtue that largely concerns the individual’s self-comportment, all virtues of character on Aristotle’s list concern other people.  Courage is, of course, displayed most of all by all those engaged in medical matters: doctors, nurses, laboratory assistants, paramedics and so on.  Liberality, on a small as well as on a large scale, is called for to provide assistance to those around us whose material existence is in jeopardy.  The politicians’ readiness to shoulder responsibility is especially needed these days; it is the virtue that Aristotle calls ‘greatness of spirit’. And there are, of course, the requirements of justice required by the law: obedience to the law is more important these days than it is under normal conditions.  Last but not least, Aristotle’s so-called social virtues find their application in these necessarily unsociable circumstances: friendliness towards both friends and strangers, and truthfulness in one’s deportment are an important part of our delicate everyday dealings with others.  Even the most outlandish-sounding of the Aristotelian virtues of character, ready wit, has its application.  It is important not only to cheer up with a witty word those we are in contact with, but also to cheer ourselves up in our solitary confinement.  It helps us to make the best of a situation that that none of us has ever encountered before, and – it is to be hoped – none of us will ever have to encounter again. 

But above all, there is the need for patience, self-restraint, and forbearance.  As the weeks go by, the need to display virtues of all kinds is no doubt irksome.  But it may help to reflect on their nature: where we get them from, how they manifest themselves, and what role they play in our lives, both under normal circumstances and under the extraordinary circumstances we find ourselves in now, in the time of Corona.  

Language and Learning Edited by Dorothea Frede and Brad Inwood
Language and Learning Edited by Dorothea Frede and Brad Inwood

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About the Author: Dorothea Frede

Dorothea Frede is Professor Emerita of Philosophy at Hamburg University. She is co-editor (with Brad Inwood) of Language and Learning: Philosophy of Language in the Hellenistic Age (Cambridge University Press, 2012). ...

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