Essay Nicomachean Ethics by Aristotle

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An Exposition of Aristotelian Virtues

In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle explores virtues as necessary conditions for being happy. A virtuous person is a person with a disposition toward virtuous actions and who derives pleasure from behaving virtuously. Aristotle distinguishes between two types of human virtue: virtues of thought and virtues of character. Virtues of thought are acquired through learning and include virtues like wisdom and prudence; virtues of character include bravery and charity, which are acquired by habituation and require external goods to develop. As a consequence, not all people can acquire virtues of character because not all people have the external goods and resources required to develop that disposition.
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Aristotle defines the function of a human being as an activity of the rational soul. He argues that most functions of humans, such as being alive or having sense perception, are shared with plants and animals and cannot be distinct functions of human beings. The only remaining possibility which is not shared with things other than human beings, according to Aristotle, is the part of the soul that has reason. Human function, therefore, is an “activity of the soul in accord with reason or requiring reason.” But further qualification must be made when referring to the something’s function in the context of a greatest good; in this case, it is not sufficient for something to simply function, it must also function well. For example, the function of a pianist is to play the piano, but the function of a good pianist is to play a piano well. According to Aristotle, adding a function’s best virtue to it will work without qualification to make something excellent in every case. So, the function of a human being is an activity of the rational soul and the greatest good for a human is activity of the rational soul in accordance with its virtue.

Accepting these premises, it follows that virtue is necessary for happiness. Aristotle notes that studying virtues will likely help in studying happiness and he begins this study by defining a virtue. A virtue is the mean between two extremes of deficiency and excess. For example, the virtue of
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