Virtue Not a Potential

I picked up L’excellence de la vie especially for the early essay of Gwenaëlle Aubry, “Actuality and Potentiality in Aristotelian Ethics” (my translation). Here she makes a number of important distinctions. Contrary to some modern interpretations, Aristotle’s natural teleology and values-first approach to ultimate philosophical questions do not lead to what 20th century philosophers called ethical naturalism, or to any kind of nature-based elitism. I’ve been assuming this all along, but it is good to spell out the argument.

Virtue can sound like the optimal realization of a healthy nature, but for Aristotle it is actually a kind of habit, so it cannot be straightforwardly natural. In Nicomachean Ethics book 2 chapter 1, Aristotle points out that we can throw a stone up in the air a thousand times, but this doesn’t change its natural tendency to fall back to the ground. One may be born with a penchant for courage, justice, or temperance, but for these qualities to become true virtues requires the engagement of reason and what Aubry calls the “transcendental” intellectual virtue of practical judgment (phronesis). Virtue is not an unevenly distributed innate talent, but a result of extensive practice that is available to all. It requires effort and “seriousness”.

If biological nature itself is shaped by implicit ends, what distinguishes human ethical development? “[T]he position of Aristotle is clear: virtue is not natural, but neither is it contrary to nature” (Aubry, p. 78, emphasis in original). Here we are in the territory of what the commentary tradition called “second nature”. Virtue for Aristotle is an acquired disposition. This rules out the notion that it is just the unfolding of something innate. Aubry says that ethical practice is a mediation between nature and something beyond nature. Before the fact, Aristotle evicts both naturalism and supernaturalism, in the way that these are commonly understood.

According to Aubry, in the ethical domain Aristotle’s standard notion of potentiality is subject to a triple modification. First, the goal of virtue is not to “be all you can be”. It is selective. Only the “definitional” potentiality of the human — to be what makes us properly human — is involved in virtue. Second, one only becomes fully human under the condition of actively choosing what one is essentially. “If everyone tends naturally toward the good, no one is naturally virtuous” (p. 79). Third, virtue can only be actualized in the context of a free exercise of reason.

“Virtue, albeit a necessary condition for the actualization of the definitional potentiality of the human, is not itself a potentiality” (p. 81). She quotes Aristotle in book 2 chapter 1 of the Nicomachean Ethics, “It is neither by nature nor against nature that the virtues are born in us, but nature has given us the capacity to receive them, and this capacity is brought to maturity by habit [hexis]” (p. 82). And again from the same, “All that we have naturally, we receive first in a state of potentiality, and it is later that we manifest it in act, as is clear in the case of the sensory faculties…. For the virtues on the contrary, their possession presupposes a previous exercise, as is the case for the other arts” (p. 83).

Aubry notes that this might seem like a vicious circle: it is necessary to act well to become capable of acting well. And in avoiding naturalism, have we replaced it with the opposite excess of a pure imposition? But this is artificial, and resembles the false paradoxes of learning. To be a good musician, one must play an instrument well, and one learns this through repeated practice. To become virtuous, one “practices” doing the right thing in the right way.