To the honorable Aristotle,
Greetings and a fine day to you. I, Arete, write to you because your books have sparked within me a good deal of curiosity and intrigue. I find that, out of all your writings, your Nicomachean Ethics intrigues me more than all others. I do not know how to explain it, but I feel drawn to all discussions of moral excellence. Perhaps it is something within me, or perhaps something of virtue is in my nature, I do not know. However, your renowned book on ethics raises in me more questions than answers, and I believe that you may know as little about how a person becomes virtuous than I do about myself. For, although I know that I am spirit, I do not know of what spirit I am.
In book 2 of your ethics, you say that virtue is twofold, consisting of intellectual virtue and character virtue. The character virtues are the object of your focus here. You claim that no one is by nature virtuous, and by virtuous, you mean to possess an assortment of character virtues. I am in agreement with you on this claim. For, it seems that if people were by nature virtuous, the debate of how a person is to be virtuous would not be nearly as prevalent as it now is. Thus, I agree with you. I also think that anyone who believes otherwise certainly has much evidence to fight against in this respect.
Although, I think the belief that no one is by nature virtuous, if true, causes a problem for us and your theory. Since people are not by nature virtuous, you say that they must become virtuous. Furthermore, you say that people become virtuous through habituation. Also, that a person can be habituated in two ways. In one way, a person could habituate himself by involuntarily doing a virtuous action enough times that it becomes a good habit, Just as a pianist habituates a melody to memory, only in our case this is done involuntarily.
The second way a person can be habituated into virtue is if he is led by the instruction of a virtuous person, or if he models his actions after one who is virtuous. This, I will refer to as “habituation by example.” The second of these two options is the one I am most concerned with, as I believe it causes a problem with your theory.
The problem arises when you realize that people become virtuous through the example set by a virtuous person. However, this virtuous person must have also become virtuous in the same way, for he was not by nature virtuous. It follows, then, that every virtuous person was habituated by a preceding virtuous person who was used as an example. For example, a virtuous person was habituated by another virtuous person and that one by another and so on. This sequence of virtuous teachers must stretch back until the very first virtuous person who was the model of virtue for all others to come. The problematic question is, how did this specific virtuous person, without any virtuous example to follow, become virtuous? Indeed, he too must become virtuous because he was not virtuous by nature. It seems puzzling how he could do this without the example of a virtuous person to follow after and thus become habituated.
I am curious, Aristotle, about how you will respond to this puzzle, and I hope that my friendly critique will not weary you. Your idea about how people could involuntarily habituate themselves could provide us with a solution, but this idea does not sit well with my spirit. We all think that virtue is something high and great, or “choice worthy” as you say. But, to say that virtuous action exists only by accident seems to demean something we hold so dear. This offends me just as I would be offended if someone said that I, Arete, existed by accident.
To the spirit, Arete,
It was a surprise to receive a letter from someone like you. It is not every day that chance occasions such things, but, as it is, when the chance is given, the chance I will take. In this state of mind, I will provide you with what I think concerning the questions you raised in your letter. I plan to do this quickly, though; I must be off to lecture in a little while.
It pleases me that we are in agreement concerning human nature, and I find the puzzle that you present to me to be a significant threat to my theory. For this reason, I believe it is something I should provide an answer to, that we may come closer to the truth and that my life’s work on this subject may not come to naught.
The puzzle which you bring to my attention, questions how the first virtuous person became virtuous. Since this person is the first to be virtuous, however, it is clear that the theory of “habituation by example” must be dismissed, for he had no example of another to follow. Your dissatisfaction with the idea that a person could involuntarily habituate himself is understandable to me for the same reasons you listed. I feel the same way about it as you. However, I am determined that if we can get a better theoretical grasp on the role experience plays in life, we will find a reasonable solution to this puzzle.
How, then, will our first virtuous person come to be? I propose that our first virtuous person learned, through the experience he gained throughout his life, that certain actions consistently resulted in bad outcomes for him and bad life-functioning overall. For example, a man might steal another man’s ox, but in so doing, his actions caused him much more trouble and grief than he would have encountered if he did not steal his neighbor’s ox. One can easily tell how a person, faced with this kind of experience enough times, would change his behavior to something closer to true virtue or proper functioning. It is in this way that I believe our first virtuous person became virtuous. Thus, our first virtuous person came to be so by revising his behavior after seeing that certain wrong actions resulted in bad life-functioning. This is the same thing that happens in craft. Namely, when the person sees that a machine does not function well, he searches and eventually finds out how to improve its functionality through adjustments made after many trials. After our first virtuous person becomes virtuous in this way, the world now has a more efficient way of developing virtue through habituation. For with habituation, there is less trial and error in figuring out which actions are virtuous and relate to the proper functioning of a human being.
I am afraid that I must now be going and put a sudden end to this short letter. To you, Arete, to your excellent spirit, to your search for virtue and to your search for yourself, Farewell.
2 thoughts on “The Letters of a Spirit and a Philosopher”
This discussion of virtuous habituation pleases me, a lover of virtue.
Nice, and your humour works well too.