Since Aristotle focuses on the importance of the upbringing in order to be virtuous, in this essay i’m going to examine Aristotle’s concept of being good.
Analysing Aristotle’s position it seems clear that the right upbringing is necessary, although not sufficient, to be virtuous. ‘The road to full virtue’, that Aristotle proposes, is composed by gradual stages therefore each of them is necessary in order to proceed to the next one.
The first stage is ‘the right upbringing’. Aristotle says that the only starting point possible is what is familiar to us. And what is familiar to us depends on our upbringing. Therefore, the right upbringing is necessary to be virtuous. It allows a person to grasp ‘the that’ (the starting point). At this stage the person intuitively comprehends that there are some noble and just things because his good upbringing led him to them. However, he does not fully understand yet why they are noble and just. Before discovering why they are noble and just, the person needs to verify by himself that what he has been told is actually good. How to do that?
The key is habituation. Aristotle wants to mark his difference from Socrates’ intellectualism by underlining the importance of not only reason but action in morality. We need to know what is good in order to act and we need to act in order to know what is good. He says that at first, since we need to know what is good in order to act, we need our parents or teachers to show us the ‘good things’. However, our ‘knowing’ is not yet ‘full knowing’. In order to obtain a ‘full knowing’ we need to verify it ourselves. Therefore, repeated practice, which is habit-forming, ‘has cognitive powers’ since through it we come to proof ourselves that what we have been told is true.
At this point Aristotle introduces another fundamental concept which is pleasure. Since the well educated person has an intrinsic kinship to virtue and to appreciate noble and just things, recognizing that the things he is practicing through habituation are good, he will take pleasure in them. At the same time, since he enjoys them he realizes that they are good, because, considering his good predisposition, he would have not enjoyed them if they were bad. ‘The growth of enjoyment goes hand in hand with the internalization of knowledge’. They are interdependent.
The internalization is another key concept. Burnyeat writes ‘the actions pain him internally, not consequentially’. This sentence means that if the well predisposed man wrongdoes and he realizes that what he is doing is unjust or ignoble he will not find it enjoyable because he will feel bad about it. Therefore, he will abstain from wrongdoing not to avoid an external pressure i.e. the pains of punishment, but to avoid an internal one i.e. ‘shame’ which is ‘the semivirtue of the learner’. In the same way, in order to complete ‘the road to full virtue’, he needs to enjoy noble and just things for their own sake, for their intrinsic value and not because of the consequences as non educated people do.
So, after learning, really learning, that the things indicated by his educators are actually noble and enjoyable he needs to understand why they are so, in order to have the ‘unqualified knowledge or practical wisdom’ which is ‘the because’. He only has ‘the that’ which is the starting point. In order to let the person, who already wants to be virtuous, acquire ‘the because’ Aristotle in the ‘Nicomachean Ethics’ gives a course in practical thinking.
At this point the importance of irrational components becomes clear, because a mature morality must also be ‘a matter of responses deriving from sources other than reflective reasons’. Aristotle thinks that feelings are intrinsic to human nature and very important in the fulfillment of virtue. In order to be effectively good we need to train them so that we can solely follow and even produce the good ones. Through knowledge, we need to create the ‘desire pursuing what reason asserts to be good’ which Aristotle calls ‘choice’.
In conclusion, we can’t be virtuous without the right upbringing. However, the right upbringing is insufficient. For the virtues to be really admirable we need to fulfill every step of the chain. Upbringing gives the right predisposition but the personal choice of virtuous fulfuillment is what is truly admirable.
Reference: Miles Burnyeat, ‘Aristotle on Learning to be Good’ in Amelie Rorty, Essays on Aristotle’s Ethics, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980.