Aristotle on Improving One’s Character Essay

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Purpose: In this critical analysis paper, the group is to present an argument about the article: Aristotle on Improving One’s Character.

1: identify and explain the critical argument that the author (Muzio) is making

2: provide your own argument about the author’s argument. One of the key issues with critical analysis papers is that students often see the assignment as a summary – this is not a summary or a book report. You are evaluating the author’s argument than making your own argument.

Critical Thinking Skills: This assignment is intended to expose the fact that even though authors are highly qualified, they are still advancing an argument and providing evidence--their aim is to persuade you that their argument is true, not to just present facts.

Analyze whether or not you find Muzio’s argument compelling. Following are key points related to evaluating arguments:

• Identify the key arguments presented

• Determine the author’s main thesis

• Identify the evidence or support that was used

• What are the implications of this argument?


Your writing assignment has two components:

1. Identify and explain the critical argument that the author (Muzio) is making

2. Provide your own argument about that argument.

• This is a group assignment. The paper must be collective work.

• All submitted papers must be uploaded to the appropriate assignment section in Module 10. The file name must include your group number. No group member names are to appear in the paper (The title page should only include your group number)

• A paper is considered late if it does not meet the above condition. Late papers will be assessed against the Late Submission Policy located within the syllabus.

• Papers should be between 1500 and 2000 words in length, typed, doubled-spaced, 12-point font, one-inch margins. References not included.

• Peer-reviewed scholarly research should be used for reference that support your key points.

• To avoid plagiarism, your paper must have similarity index less the 20%.

I'm in charge of the part how character is not a passion. Should be more than 300 words.

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Aristotle on Improving One's Character Author(s): Gianluca Di Muzio Source: Phronesis, Vol. 45, No. 3 (Aug., 2000), pp. 205-219 Published by: Brill Stable URL: Accessed: 11-03-2019 02:27 UTC JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range of content in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new forms of scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of the Terms & Conditions of Use, available at Brill is collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access to Phronesis This content downloaded from on Mon, 11 Mar 2019 02:27:40 UTC All use subject to Aristotle on Improving One's Character GLANLUCA DI MUZIO ABSTRACT Contrary to what most interpreters hold, in the Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle is not committed to the view that people of established vicious character could never become good. The present paper proves this result (1) by giving a better reading of 1114 a 12-21, a passage which has traditionally been taken to assert that unjust and self-indulgent people are doomed to a lifetime of vice; (2) by showing that when Aristotle refers to self-indulgent people as "incurable", he does not mean that they could never change, but only that they could not change as a result of external influences such as persuasion or punishment; (3) by proving that although Aristotle regards the desires of vicious people as determined by their character, there is room within Aristotelian moral psychology for the pos- sibility that people of corrupt character become motivated to begin a process of moral reform. In chapter 5 of Book III of the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle argues that character is voluntary. He supports this conclusion by pointing out that (1) engaging in activities of a certain kind produces corresponding states of character (1114 a 7); and (2) everybody knows that (1) is true (1114 a 9-10). In Aristotle's view, those who routinely do, say, unjust actions tend to produce in themselves an unjust character. Since they are aware of the long-term effects their actions will have on their character, then if in the end they acquire a permanent disposition to act unjustly, they can fairly be said to have acquired it voluntarily. There is thus a clear sense in which unjust or self-indulgent people wish to be unjust or self- indulgent (1114 a 11-12). Then comes a passage in which Aristotle appears to suggest that those who have acquired a morally corrupt character cannot change it or act contrary to it: But if without being ignorant a man does the things which will make him unjust, he will be unjust voluntarily. Yet it does not follow that if he wishes he will cease to be unjust and will be just. For neither does the man who is ill become well on those terms. We may suppose a case in which he is ill voluntarily, through living incontinently and disobeying his doctors. In that case it was then open to him not to be ill, but not now, when he has thrown away his chance, just as when you have let a stone go it is too late to recover it; but yet it was in your power to throw it, since the moving principle was in you. So, too, to the unjust and to the self-indulgent man it was open at the beginning not to become ? Koninklijke Brill NV, Leiden, 2000 Phronesis XLV13 This content downloaded from on Mon, 11 Mar 2019 02:27:40 UTC All use subject to 206 GIANLUCA DI MUZIO men of this kind, and so they are unjust and self-indulgent voluntarily; but now that they have become so it is not possible for them not to be so (1114 a 12-21, trans. Ross). ' In this passage Aristotle compares a man who has made himself unjust with one who has made himself ill. To the two men it was open at the outset to be just and healthy respectively. But now that the one has vol- untarily become unjust and the other has voluntarily become ill, they cannot escape the condition they have brought upon themselves through their actions. They are like someone who has voluntarily thrown away a stone and can no longer recover it. The passage, then, appears to seek to establish two propositions: (a) that those who have acquired a bad character cannot subsequently change it, and (b) that people of established bad character can only act in character, since this, once acquired, is a prison from which no one can escape. A passage in the Categories, however, indicates that Aristotle regarded moral reform as possible: For the bad man, if led into better ways of living and talking, would progress, if only a little, towards being better. And if he once made even a little progress it is clear that he might either change completely or make really great progress. For however slight the progress he made to begin with, he becomes ever more easily changed towards virtue, so that he is likely to make still more progress; and when this keeps happening it brings him over completely into the contrary state, provided time permits (Categories 13 a 23-31, trans. Ackrill). Instead of treating the apparent conflict between the two passages as an oddity within the Aristotelian corpus, William Bondeson tried to rec- oncile them.2 The present paper aims to supplement Bondeson's discus- Accepted February 2000 I In their commentary to this passage, Gauthier and Jolif quote from P. Mesnard's La morale d'Aristote (Alger, 1942, pp. 24-25). Mesnard holds that for Aristotle the vicious cannot "remonter le courant", and remarks on how foreign the notion of conversion was to the Greek mentality (R. A. Gauthier and J. Y. Jolif, eds., L'Ethique a Nicomaque, Louvain: Publications Universitaires, 1970, vol. H, pt. 1, pp. 214-215). See also discussions of the passage in D. Furley, Two studies in the Greek Atomists, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1967, p. 190; R. Sorabji, Necessity, Cause, and Blame: Perspectives on Aristotle's Theory, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1980, p. 232; R. Curren, "The contribution of Nicomachean Ethics iii 5 to Aristotle's theory of responsibility", History of Philosophy Quarterly, 6 (1989), pp. 261-277 (esp. pp. 272-273). 2 W. Bondeson, "Aristotle on responsibility for one's character and the possibility of character change", Phronesis 19 (1974), pp. 59-65. In his interpretation of Aristotle's position in the Nicomachean Ethics, Bondeson focused on 1114 a 9-10. These lines make the point that only a "thoroughly senseless" person would not know that "it is This content downloaded from on Mon, 11 Mar 2019 02:27:40 UTC All use subject to ARISTOTLE ON IMPROVING ONE'S CHARACTER 207 sion.3 By giving a close reading of the passage in the Nicomachean Ethics, I will bring out certain features of Aristotle's argument that interpreters have overlooked. It will emerge that Aristotle subscribed to only one view, namely, that moral reform is possible, although difficult. First of all, we need to place the Nicomachean passage in its proper context. As we have seen, it comes right after 1114 a 11-12, a statement to the effect that those who have acquired a certain character must wish from the exercise of activities on particular objects that states of character are produced". In Bondeson's view, Aristotle would not stress that people usually know about the character-forming power of their actions unless he also thought that character is changeable. As Bondeson puts it, "If men do know that actions of certain kinds lead to corresponding states of character, then that knowledge makes them responsible for the states of character which they have acquired. But this is possible only if it is possible to act contrary to an established character. One could imagine a case in which a man knew that the actions he performs will lead to a corresponding state of char- acter but nevertheless he is unable to act contrary to his existing state of character" (p. 64). Bondeson's point, as I understand it, is that Aristotle is issuing a reminder ("You know that your repeated actions shape your character. So you are responsible for the kind of character you eventually acquire"). But this type of reminder implies that those for whom it is issued are free to act as they please, even contrary to their character. One would not warn others by saying: "Watch how you act" if one thought that people's existing states of character rob them of any control over their actions. Is Bondeson's argument conclusive? Only if it can be proved that Aristotle's warn- ing is intended both for people of established character and for people whose character is in course of formation. The former have acquired stable dispositions through a long process of habituation. Some of them may even be called "fully virtuous" or "fully vicious". The latter are still in the process of shaping their dispositions to act virtu- ously or viciously. Bondeson clearly thinks that Aristotle is speaking to both sets of people (cf. note 12 on p. 64 of Bondeson's paper and the reference to acting contrary to an established character in the above quote). But this requires argument. For given the text, Aristotle may simply be addressing his warning to those who have not yet acquired a set of stable dispositions and thus need to be reminded of the difference their future actions will make to those dispositions. In other words, Aristotle's warning does not prove anything per se. If the warning is not also addressed to people of established character, then issuing it is consistent with holding that those who have acquired stable dispositions can no longer act contrary to them. My approach, unlike Bondeson's, does not focus exclusively on 1114 a 9-10. By looking at the whole of 1114 a 12-21, I show directly, and not by implication, that Aristotle does not there assert that character is unchangeable. His point is that character cannot be changed simply by wishing to do so. In my interpretation, then, Aristotle's warning is directed to those who are in the process of forming their character. Aristotle reminds these people that character, although voluntary and changeable, is not changeable at will and easily. I I am also developing and providing textual support for a suggestion that comes in the very last paragraph of F. A. Siegler's paper "Voluntary and Involuntary", The Monist 52 (1968), pp. 268-287. This content downloaded from on Mon, 11 Mar 2019 02:27:40 UTC All use subject to 208 GIANLUCA DI MUZIO to be as they are. Now Aristotle is careful to prevent a possible misunderstanding of his position. To say that those who have a certain character wish to be as they are is not to say that it is by wishing to be a certain type of person that one becomes so. To say that character is voluntary, and that we can control the character we acquire, is not to say that we can acquire a character at will, just by wishing to do so. Put more formally, Aristotle is committed to the conditional "If a person has an X-type character, that person wishes to be an X-type person", but he wants to make it clear that this conditional does not entail its converse. The phrasing of 1114 a 13-14 reveals precisely that Aristotle is nipping in the bud a possible misunderstanding of his view: "ovO jiTlv Eav YE Po)kXEal, aLtKOc xv i' c aetat KQi gata iat1KaLto;", which Ross translates "Yet it does not follow that if he wishes he will cease to be unjust and will be just" (emphasis supplied). Aristotle's saying that people voluntarily form their own character and wish to have it may encourage someone to take him to be saying that people can change their character just by wishing to do so. This, however, is not the case, Aristotle stresses. The kind of change under discussion here does not happen merely as a result of wish. It is to illustrate this point that Aristotle introduces the comparison with the man who makes himself ill. Far from being intended to support the impossibility of character change for the bad man, the comparison is rather intended to clarify how that change could happen. The wording of 1114 a 14-15 is particularly revealing: "For neither does the man who is ill become well [by wishing to become well]". This sentence is about a man who undergoes a change and becomes well from ill. Aristotle reminds us that everybody would dismiss the suggestion that this man became well just by wishing to become well. Now suppose that this is a person who became ill voluntarily, by adopting a lifestyle contrary to his doctors' recommendations (1 114 a 15-16). This supposition is intended to create an analogy with the case of someone who becomes unjust. For Aristotle has just told us that those who become unjust do so voluntarily. So if Aristotle intends for there to be an analogy between the two men, and the former is a voluntarily ill person who becomes well, the latter must be a voluntarily unjust person who becomes just. The whole point of the comparison is to show that just as an ill person does not become healthy simply by wishing, so an unjust person does not become just simply by wishing. Through the former, familiar fact, Aristotle seeks to establish the latter, preventing a misunderstanding of his view. He does not say, of the unjust man, that he could never change. Rather, he tries to persuade us, through the analogy with the voluntarily ill person, that an unjust This content downloaded from on Mon, 11 Mar 2019 02:27:40 UTC All use subject to ARISTOTLE ON IMPROVING ONE'S CHARACTER 209 man could not change simply by wishing to do so, even if there is a clear sense in which people can control the character they have. The simile of the stone, at 1114 a 17-19, supports Aristotle's position with a further analogy. The analogy is between the state of being ill (when one has become ill voluntarily) and the state of being unjust or self-indul- gent. The act of throwing a stone serves as a common term of comparison to link these two states. One who is in the state of having become ill voluntarily is exactly in the same predicament as someone who has thrown a stone. At first, it was open to the individual not to throw the stone/ become ill. But after the throw/onset of the disease, the individual cannot help being in the situation he is in (the situation of having thrown the stone/being ill, with all the consequences the situation entails). No amount of wishing can alter the individual's present predicament. Aristotle is not asserting anything stronger than this. For it would be odd and uncharita- ble to interpret the comparison with the throw of the stone as intended to show that once one has voluntarily contracted an ailment, one can never recover. This is contrary to fact, and, in addition, the passage was about an ill man who becomes well all along (recall 1114 a 14-14: "For neither does the man who is ill become well on those terms"). What reason would we have, then, to think that when the focus of the analogy shifts to the unjust or self-indulgent man, Aristotle means that once one has acquired a corrupt character, moral reform is impossible? If this was Aristotle's view, he would alert us to a difference between the ill and the unjust man, instead of likening them to each other. The concluding lines of the passage cash out the analogy by asserting that, just as the voluntarily ill man, the unjust man is similar to a man who has thrown a stone. Like the latter, who could have avoided throwing the stone (1114 a 18-19), the unjust man could have avoided becoming unjust. But now he cannot help being in the state he has brought upon himself. He cannot help being unjust, and no amount of wishing (that he had not become unjust, that he become just now, etc.) will help him. Perhaps interpreters were misled by the very last sentence in the passage: "but now that [the unjust and the self-indulgent man] have become so it is not possible for them not to be so" (1114 a 21). Taken in isolation, this sentence does seem to say that the vicious are doomed to a lifetime of vice. But notice that Aristotle simply says "it is not possible for them not to be so" ("oV?cTi ETattfli eTvax", emphasis supplied). Lacking further indication from the context, this sentence should not be taken to make a claim about the whole of the unjust or incontinent person's future life. For the negated infinitive "ti1 &Ivai" exactly parallels the earlier "gil This content downloaded from on Mon, 11 Mar 2019 02:27:40 UTC All use subject to 210 GIANLUCA Di MUZIO voasiv" ("not to be ill", said at 1114 a 15-17 to be open to a man when he is still healthy, and then no longer open to him once he has made him- self ill). In the earlier context, as we have seen, it would be odd to interpret Aristotle as saying that a man who contracted a disease because of his incontinence will suffer from that disease for the rest of his life. Likewise, lines 19-21, whose "gin eJvat" parallels the "gi' voieiv" of th earlier passage, are not plausibly taken to state that the unjust and the selfindulgent will never cease to be unjust and self-indulgent. The passage states only that these people cannot help being unjust and self-indulgent now that they have thrown away their chance of remaining free from vice (just as the voluntarily ill man cannot help being ill now that he has thrown away his chance of remaining healthy). But what exactly is the point of Aristotle's remark? Am I not attribut- ing to him an entirely trivial statement such as "those who have made themselves vicious are vicious"? My reply is that this statement is far from trivial if Aristotle uses it to counter the two points most likely to be raised in relation to his theory of the voluntariness of character. (A) A philosophically sophisticated opponent may object to Aristotle that by making character voluntary he is in fact asserting that people can change character at will. But the notion of character is typically associated with permanence and a certain lack of flexibility. (B) A person inclined towards vice may use the doctrine of the voluntariness of character to object to all attempts to convince him to become virtuous. Such a person may reason that since character is voluntary, there are no major disadvantages to becoming vicious. For one can always embrace a virtuous life at a later time by wanting to become virtuous.4 In response to the reactions to his doctrine exemplified in (A) and (B), Aristotle stresses that asserting the voluntariness of character does not involve asserting that character is not a firm and lasting disposition to act in a certain way. The disposition is a powerful one, and although it is brought about voluntarily, it is extremely difficult to get rid of it. The point of Aristotle's remark to the effect that people cannot help being unjust or 4 Joachim seems to have (B) in mind when he writes: "Notice the doctrine of 1114 a 11-21. The acts which form a moral state are willing - we can do or not do them. But we cannot, when we have once formed a moral state, all at once act contrary to it. [...) Character is formed by a long and gradual growth. It is only the fool who supposes he can pursue his folly with impunity, relying on the miracle of a sudden conversion", H. H. Joachim, The Nicomachean Ethics, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1955, p. 106. This content downloaded from on Mon, 11 Mar 2019 02:27:40 UTC All use subject to ARISTOTLE ON IMPROVING ONE'S CHARACTER 211 self-indulgent once they have voluntarily become so lies precisely in bringing out that although injustice and self-indulgence are voluntary states, one cannot get rid of them at will. Character is not just a matter of wishing. Once it has taken hold of an individual's soul, its grip is not an easy one to break. Aristotle wants to make this clear by stressing that mere wishing is causally ineffective when it comes to changes in moral states, just as it is ineffective when it comes to changes in health. What, then, is effective? In keeping with Aristotle's analogy between injustice and disease, we can answer this question by pointing to the trans- formational power of repeated and consistent action. Just as one can recover health through engaging in therapy, diet, and exercise over a period of time, so can one improve a state of character by acting in ways apt to defeat the bad habits one has. After all, as Aristotle had remarked, everybody knows that it is through the "exercise of activities on particular objects" (1114 a 9-10) that states of character are produced. The process of character improvement is likely to be very difficult and labori- ous for an unjust man, whose progress will constantly be jeopardized by the ability his bad states of character have to incline him strongly towards bad actions. But nothing of what Aristotle says at 1114 a 12-21 implies that in his view this is an impossible process to complete. Aristotle's position in the Nicomachean passage, then, is fully compatible with the one expressed in the Categories passage, which insists precisely on the timeconsuming nature of moral reform. One reason for resisting the interpretation I have been defending is that elsewhere in the Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle calls the self-indulgent man "avuaroq" (incorrigible, incurable). At 1150 a 21-22 he points out that self-indulgent people have no regrets, and people with no regrets cannot be cured. At 1150 b 29-1151 a 5 he compares the self-indulgent and the incontinent man in respect of the possibility of reform: The self-indulgent man, as was said, has no regrets; for he stands by his choice; but any incontinent man is subject to regrets. This is why the position is not as it was expressed in the formulation of the problem, but the self-indulgent man is incurable and the incontinent man curable; for wickedness is like a disease such as dropsy or consumption, while incontinence is like epilepsy; the former is a permanent, the latter an intermittent badness. And generally incontinence and vice are different in kind; vice is unconscious of itself, incontinence is not (of incontinent men themselves, those who become temporarily beside themselves are better than those who have the rational principle but do not abide by it, since the latter are defeated by a weaker passion, and do not act without previous delib- eration like the others); for the incontinent man is like the people who get drunk quickly and on little wine, i.e. on less than most people (trans. Ross). This content downloaded from on Mon, 11 Mar 2019 02:27:40 UTC All use subject to 212 GIANLUCA DI MUZIO This passage clearly contains a verdict of incorrigibility for the selfindulgent (and perhaps for the vicious in general). But it is worth asking whether incorrigibility is to be equated with the impossibility to change. Someone may be incorrigible in the literal sense of in-corrigible, i.e. impervious to external means of correction. But being incorrigible in this sense is compatible with being able to change if the process of change has an internal origin. Indeed, some of the most meaningful changes in people are produced from the inside and could not have been brought about through mere correction and punishment. If we now return to the passage in which Aristotle calls the self-indulgent person "incorrigible", we will be able to see that all he has in mind is the literal sense of "incorrigible". First, we should note that a remark in the passage ("the position is not as it was expressed in the formulation of the problem", 1150 b 31) indicates that Aristotle is solving a difficulty introduced earlier. The aporia, presented towards the end of Chapter 2 of Book VII, consisted in the fact that self-indulgent people would seem to be better than incontinent people. For the former pursue pleasure by choice and on full conviction that the unconditional enjoyment of pleasure is the right course to take. A selfindulgent man would therefore appear to be "easier to cure since he may be persuaded to change his mind" (UXaxt6oepo; &tb tOa ToUaEUOavat av, 1146 a 33-34). In other words, if being self-indulgent is a matter of being wrong about pleasure, then one may reform a self-indulgent person by persuading him to change his beliefs. The incontinent man, however, is already persuaded that he should not yield to his wrong impulses. So attempting to reform him by persuasion would be as futile as giving someone a drink of water to wash down the water that is choking him (1146 a 35). The puzzle here is that self-indulgence, which is a vice that proceeds from deliberate choice and calculation, and does not involve regrets of any kind, would seem to be a morally less desperate condition than incontinence, despite the fact that the incontinent struggles against his impulses and would thus appear to have a better chance at reform. In Chapter 8 of Book VII Aristotle solves this puzzle by reevaluating what it means to say that self-indulgent people stand by their choices and act on conviction that what they do is the right course to take. The selfindulgent person's conviction is of the sort that destroys the person's abil- ity to entertain right opinion about ends (1 151 a 15-19). Such a conviction could not be changed through argument, since it stems from a fundamental corruption of judgment about moral matters. Contrary to what stated in the aporia, then, the self-indulgent man is not morally better off than the incontinent man. For his vice makes him impervious to all attempts This content downloaded from on Mon, 11 Mar 2019 02:27:40 UTC All use subject to ARISTOTLE ON IMPROVING ONE'S CHARACTER 213 to persuade him to change his ways. It is rather the incontinent man who turns out to be "easily persuaded to change his mind" (6geaituLtato;, 1151 a 14). Aristotle does not elaborate on what exactly this means, but his view can be gathered from his comparison between dropsy and consumption, on the one hand, and epilepsy, on the other (1150 b 32-35). Incontinence is like epilepsy in that it is an intermittent condition. The incontinent person retains the ability to reason correctly about ends. It is only at certain times that his judgment becomes clouded and his knowledge of the good is overshadowed by passion. The incontinent man, then, is not impervious to persuasion, because when he is not in the grip of passion he is responsive to guidance and can be persuaded to fight more vigorously against his impulses. A vice like self-indulgence, on the other hand, is like a disease that has no periods of spontaneous remission. Persuasion is bound to fail because there are no times when the self-indulgent person would be receptive to it. The self-indulgent person, then, is incurable. But does the progression of Aristotle's argument authorize us to attribute to him the view that the self-indulgent person could never cease to be self-indulgent? No; at most we can attribute to Aristotle the view that the self-indulgent person could not cease to be self-indulgent as a result of persuasion. The aporia yielded the odd result that a self-indulgent man would be "easier to cure since he may be persuaded to change his mind" (1146 a 33-34, emphasis supplied). The "cure" at issue is moral reform through persuasion. So when Aristotle later turns the tables on the aporia and shows that it is the incontinent, and not the self-indulgent man, who is Ev,ueraiEtato, he is saying only that the vice of self-indulgence does not admit of correction through external influences. But this leaves open the possibility that moral reform be attained through a different process, which I shall try to elucidate below. That in calling the self-indulgent man "incorrigible" Aristotle uses the terrm in the limited sense of "unresponsive to correction" - a sense that leaves open the possibility that the vice of self-indulgence be overcome through means different from correction - can be confirmed from a variety of angles. In a passage I have already referred to (1150 a 21-22), Aristotle asserts that it is the self-indulgent man's lack of regret that makes him &viaToq. Now it is important to remember that Aristotle takes an etymological approach to the notion of self-indulgence (aicoXacaia). The adcoko6Xao; is, literally, the man without punishment (ico6aoa;). In the Eudemian Ethics (1230 a 37-b8), Aristotle explains that this may signify a man who has not been cured through punishment or a man whose nature is impervious to punishment. It is in the latter sense that people are called "a&c6oXkatot" This content downloaded from on Mon, 11 Mar 2019 02:27:40 UTC All use subject to 214 GIANLUCA DI MUZIO when they are hard to cure (6-aiaTot) or altogether incurable through pun- ishment (aviarot natgnav &ta KOXcZGaSox, 1230 b 8). So when Aristotle designates the self-indulgent man as "incurable" on account of his lack of regret (1150 a 21-22) and differentiates between the curable incontinent and the incurable self-indulgent (1150 b 29 ff.), he need not have in mind anything more than the fact that self-indulgent people are impervious to correction. Thus we should be wary of attributing to him the stronger thesis that it is impossible to cease to be self-indul- gent.5 Further, at 1121 b 12-13, Aristotle calls a vice "incurable" on the basis of contingent reasons and not purely on account of its being a vice, as we would expect him to do if he were convinced that it is altogether impossible to overcome vicious character states. In this passage, he states that meanness is an incurable vice because old age and disabilities appear to make people mean. Clearly, meanness is here said to be incurable not insofar as it is a vice - for otherwise the reference to old age and dis- ability would be superfluous - but because old age cuts short the time that could be used to attain reform or the disability on which the vice depends cannot be cured. So Aristotle is comfortable with calling a man "aviaTo;9 even when it is only de facto, but not intrinsically impossible for him to be cured of his vice. Aristotle's use of the term does not per se commit him to the thesis that vice is by nature insuperable. It only commits him to the thesis that there are circumstances under which attempts at reforming an individual are bound to fail. This thesis is consistent with the possibility of moral reform if this can be attained through a process that does not rely on means such as persuasion or punishment. To begin to explain how Aristotle understands such a process, it is use- ful to focus on yet another passage in which "aviaxto;" occurs. At 1165 b 13-22, Aristotle takes up the question of how one should act towards a friend who has become bad: But if one accepts another man as good, and he turns out badly [y?v-tat 5 ioxOp6;] and is seen to do so, must one still love him? Surely it is impossible, since not everything can be loved, but only what is good. What is evil neither can nor should be loved; for it is not one's duty to be a lover of evil, or to become like what is bad; and we have said that like is dear to like. Must the friend- ship, then, be forthwith broken off? Or is this not so in all cases, but only when one's friends are incurable in their wickedness [XvtaoTt; KcaTa Tiv AoGipiavJ? If they are capable of being reformed, one should come to the assistance of their character even more than of their property, inasmuch as character is a better thing I For another passage in which "aviato;" is clearly used in the sense of "unresponsive to punishment", cf. 1180 a 5-14. This content downloaded from on Mon, 11 Mar 2019 02:27:40 UTC All use subject to ARISTOTLE ON IMPROVING ONE'S CHARACTER 215 and bears a closer relation to friendship. But a man who breaks off such a friendship would seem to be doing nothing strange; for it was not to a man of this sort that he was a friend; when his friend has changed, therefore, and he is unable to save him, he gives him up (trans. Ross, slightly modified).6 This passage implies that some of those who become bad are incurable. But it also implies that some can be reformed.7 Now how does one help those friends whose character has degenerated? Aristotle's answer is compressed: we should come to the assistance of their character. What does this mean? Given that Aristotle notoriously holds that arguments lack the power to make people good (1179 b 4-31), it is unlikely that he has in mind the argumentative course of trying to persuade the friend to become better. Instead of an abstract attempt at persuasion, Aristotle seems to have in mind the same kind of practical approach that would lead one to help out a friend who is experiencing financial difficulties. As lines 19-20 sug- gest, since we take action when a friend's substances are in trouble, then a fortiori we should take action when a friend's character is in danger. "Coming to the assistance of a friend's character" should thus be construed as doing that action or set of actions which, in the circumstances, would most effectively counter the degeneration of the friend's character and its consequences in terms of actions. This may involve trying to limit the friend's access to people or environments that exercise a bad influence on him. Or it may simply take the for-m of approaching the friend to show genuine concern for him and for the restoration of his virtue. The variations are probably infinite, since they would be dictated by the circumstances. But in all or most cases the friend turned bad will be exposed to the virtuous behaviour of the rescuing friend, and to his noble concern and readiness to help. 6 Lines 19-20 read: "CnavOpOoxv 5' 0Xouat ,&A.ov poi ,ov ci; xo 0o; i rrv oOiLav, OM() PkXttOV ca1C ptS tk'ta OiKtO'TEpOV". Ross translates: "If they are capable of being reformed one should rather come to the assistance of their character or their property, inasmuch as this is better and more characteristic of friendship". But "gak- kov" clearly introduces a comparison between "zo i10o;" and "rr v oixsiav". The sense of the passage is that just as one should help one's friends in times of financial hardship, so should one come to the rescue of a friend's character, which is so much more precious than wealth. I According to Gauthier and Jolif (L'thique a Nicomaque, vol. II, pt. 2, p. 724), in this passage Aristotle distinguishes between friends who have become vicious and friends who have become incontinent. It is only the latter, Gauthier and Jolif hold, that Aristotle regards as curable. I see no basis in the text for this interpretation, given that it is clear that the purpose of the whole passage is to discuss options for dealing with a friend who has become goXrIpo'; (cf. 1165 b 13-14). This content downloaded from on Mon, 11 Mar 2019 02:27:40 UTC All use subject to 216 GIANLUCA DI MUZIO Of course Aristotle does not think that exposure to the virtue of a friend is sufficient to reform a person's character. For clearly there are cases where nothing will help. When it is impossible to save a friend, one is justified in breaking off the friendship (1165 b 22). But Aristotle's point, I believe, is that in certain cases exposure to virtue and to the noble concern of a friend may trigger a process of moral reform in a person of bad character. This process would take the form described in the Categories passage (improvement of character in successive increments through action). And the Categories passage, too, identifies the first-hand experience of virtue - or at least the experience of a way of life better than vice - as the point of departure of moral reform in those individuals who manage to escape from vice. The bad man, Aristotle says, may become better if he is "led into better ways of living and talking" ("ei; FeXtiov; 8tarptpta; ayo6evo; xait X6yov;", 13 a 23-24). A plausible way of understanding these lines is by thinking of someone who is exposed to the example of people living virtuously and thus becomes attracted to the life of virtue, exactly as a person turned bad may be attracted back to virtue by the virtuous attitude and concern of a friend. One may object to my overall enterprise of showing that Aristotle admits of the possibility of moral reform on grounds that it is hard to see how exposure to virtue could provide sufficient motivation for the vicious to become virtuous. Actually, given certain facts about Aristotelian moral psychology, it is hard to see how anything could provide that motivation. Aristotle holds that vice is unconscious of itself (1150 b 36). He also holds that a vicious character shapes the desires of the individual who possesses it (1129 a 6-10). So if the vicious do not realize that they are vicious and their character determines their desires, what in them could be the source of a desire to change? Where could their motivation come from? To answer this question, we should keep in mind that according to Aristotle wicked people experience a misery that is characteristic of vice. Nicomachean Ethics IX 4 draws a sharp contrast between the good person's self-love and the bad person's self-loathing. Wicked men, Aristotle points out, shun themselves and therefore dislike being by themselves. They have no feelings of self-love, since there is nothing lovable in them. So the life of the bad man is the most wretched (1166 b 13-29). Now in the last few lines of this passage Aristotle remarks that the spectacle of the bad man's wretchedness should affect us and serve as an impulse to "strain every nerve to avoid wickedness and [. ..] endeavour to be good" (1166 b 27-28). But Aristotle clearly believes that such a wretchedness also affects the bad man himself. The bad man is aware of his unhappi- This content downloaded from on Mon, 11 Mar 2019 02:27:40 UTC All use subject to ARISTOTLE ON IMPROVING ONE'S CHARACTER 217 ness and is able not only to desire that it cease, but also to take concrete steps to get away from it. As I pointed out above, Aristotle stresses that wicked people actively seek the company of others. They pursue this form of distraction in order to avoid the feelings they experience about their past and future evil deeds (1166 b 13-17). Aristotle also remarks that the condition of wicked people is so unbearable that they sometimes take their own life (1166 b 11-13). So it is clear that according to Aristotle wicked people can form the desire that some of their feelings cease, and can also act on it. Such a desire is a "higher order" one, in the sense that it comes from stepping back and reflecting on the overall quality of one's life. Although one of the tenets of Aristotelian moral psychology is that a bad character can only produce desires for bad things, the "higher order" desire does not proceed from an individual's moral character. For quite independently of their moral character, people can realize - through mere introspection that certain unpleasant feelings are present in them; and this realization, in turn, can serve as a basis for a desire that those feelings cease. Even wicked people, then, can desire that something change in them. This is not necessarily a desire to become good, since for Aristotle vice is unconscious of itself, and a bad person may have no clear representation of what being good amounts to. Rather, it is a generic desire to change so as to reduce or eliminate one's feelings of self-loathing. It is at this stage that exposure to virtue, together with the realization that virtuous people are immune from feelings of self-loathing, may trigger a process of change and induce the vicious person to experiment with the actions virtuous peo- ple routinely engage in. Given an adequate amount of time, this process may in some cases lead to the kind of complete moral reform the Categories passage describes. Although a vicious person may start the process for reasons of mere self-interest, it is clear from the Categories passage that according to Aristotle making even a little progress at the beginning may lead to more dramatic changes in the long run. In other words, by admitting of the possibility of moral reform, Aristotle admits that even a morally corrupt person could do good actions and little by little arrive at doing them in the way in which a good person does them. This qualification is necessary because there is a trivial sense in which any, say, unjust person could do just actions. Reasons of opportunity often prompt immoral people to act morally. But an action done under these circumstances - for instance, returning a deposit simply for fear of the consequences of not doing so - would be just only incidentally (cf. Nicomachean Ethics V 8, 1135 b 2-6). Now Aristotle distinguishes This content downloaded from on Mon, 11 Mar 2019 02:27:40 UTC All use subject to 218 GIANLUCA between DI MUZIO actions of the sort a in the way a just person does them (cf. Nicomachean Ethics H 4, 1105 b 5-12). The former may be performed by an unjust agent who is acting justly only in the incidental sense, whereas in order to do the latter it is necessary that the action be chosen for its own sake. If Aristotle allowed for the possibility of moral reform, he must have thought that even morally corrupt people could go beyond doing good for mere reasons of opportunity. He must have thought that even the unjust could in principle do just actions for their own sake, and could in time - and after struggling considerably - acquire a stable disposition to act in this way. Seeing that Aristotle does not regard it as impossible for people to act contrary to their character may serve to ease a worry some interpreters have expressed about the doctrine of the voluntariness of character. On a certain traditional reading, in Nicomachean Ethics III 5 Aristotle distinguishes between two stages in the moral development of an individual. Before the formation of character, whenever a person acts, he or she could have taken some other course of action instead. But once a person has acquired a certain character, this dictates a particular type of behaviour and robs the person of the ability to act otherwise.8 If this is Aristotle's theory, however, the actions of moral adolescents would oddly seem to be more directly voluntary than those of the morally mature. The actions of the latter, necessitated as they are by character, would seem to be either downright involuntary or voluntary only in a weak, derivative sense (that is, merely as a consequence of their proceeding from a character that has been acquired through voluntary actions).9 I For an example of this reading, see D. Furley, Two studies in the Greek Atomists, pp. 189-190. Of course, even on this interpretation, a person's behaviour is not entirely determined by character. An unjust man retains the option of choosing wine or beer when he is offered a drink. But the point of the interpretation is that an unjust man can only act unjustly in a situation involving a moral choice. I This would be odd in light of the fact that Aristotle's whole treatment of voluntariness in Book III of the Nicomachean Ethics "makes actions explained by the character of the agent paradigm examples of voluntary action", J. Roberts, "Aristotle on responsibility for action and character", Ancient Philosophy 9 (1989), p. 28. The difficulty is pointed out also by Siegler ("Voluntary and Involuntary", p. 285) and by Sarah Broadie, who articulates it thus: "The individual who habitually puts himself first will find a way of doing this whichever way he acts, and genuinely self-sacrificing alternatives would not be live options to him. It may depend on him whether he does precisely this or that, and in respect of detail he may be a contingent cause, but it seems that whatever he now does, it does not depend on him whether he behaves selfcentredly. So, if some action of his mainly strikes us as an instance of selfish behav- This content downloaded from on Mon, 11 Mar 2019 02:27:40 UTC All use subject to just ARISTOTLE ON IMPROVING ONE'S CHARACTER 219 This difficulty is done away with if one abandons the assumption that Aristotle views character as necessitating certain types of action. He cer- tainly views character as a source of very strong inclination to act in a certain way. But his not ruling out the possibility of moral reform indicates that he took even the unjust to be still equipped with the resources for acting well. So having an established character does not rob a person of the ability to act contrary to it. Those who see a difficulty in Aristotle's doctrine of the voluntariness of character take it that an action cannot be voluntary if the agent could not have refrained from doing it. It is not at all clear that Aristotle understood voluntariness in this way.'0 But even if he did, one should not be worried that his theory may entail that people of established character act involuntarily. For in Aristotle's view they retain the ability to act contrary to their character." Department of Philosophy University of Virginia iour, is the action voluntary under that description, and is he to be reproached for it or blamed? It would be strange if not, since that would imply that a person of settled character is a voluntary agent only (if at all) in respect of the ethically insignificant aspects of his action; yet the concept voluntary is above all relevant to ethics as setting the formal condition under which an individual becomes subject to ethical judgment", S. Broadie, Ethics with Aristotle, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991, p. 160. 10 Furley, for instance, has argued that Aristotle does not frame the notion of voluntariness in terms of freedom to do otherwise. Cf. Two studies in the Greek Atomists, pp. 215-225. " I would like to thank Dan Devereux for his advice and encouragement through- out the realization of this project. I also profited from helpful discussions with Tom Brickhouse. This content downloaded from on Mon, 11 Mar 2019 02:27:40 UTC All use subject to
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Our Argument

Aristotle is a renowned philosopher who trails of thoughts and arguments that have been
used in various settings. In fact, he is regarded as a towering figure in Ancient Greek. Besides
philosophy, he has made vital contributions to metaphysics, logic, mathematics, biology, botany,
physics, medicine, ethics, politics, theater and many more. He has so much contributed to the
power and how people behave including characters and various sc...

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