The definition of “arete” by Aristotle in the Nicomachean Ethics

Eduardo Chillida, Competition - Harmony
Eduardo Chillida, Competition – Harmony


We often talk about “arete“, or “virtue“, although the latin-based word is not coveying the full meaning. As it happens in these cases, we all use the same word, but each one has potentially a different understanding or interpretation of it.

Having just finished reading Plato’s “Meno”, I was reminded of the definition of “arete” by Aristotle in Nicomachean Ethics, and its interprpetation by the French-Greek philosopher Cornelius Castoriadis.

There are at least three major issues to address.

First of all, whereas Plato in Menon is so keen to arrive at a definition of virtue, it appears as if this is a strictly theoretical exercise. Aristotle, on the other hand, claims that the issue is “how to act”.

Then we have the question of whether virtue is knowledge or a habit, whether it can be attained and acquired by rationality or by perception.

Finally, there is the question of the context of virtue.

I will proceed to quote from the text in the Greek original of the Nicomachean Ethics, then give the translation in modern Greek, and then provide a translation and/or interpretation in English. For the modern Greek translation I will use the translations available in the “Gate of the Greek Language” (reference 3), and on some occasions my translation. The “standard” english translation I will use is by William David Ross (reference 1).

Eduardo Chillida, Homenaje a Picasso
Eduardo Chillida, Homenaje a Picasso

Why define “arete”?

Ἐπεὶ οὖν ἡ παροῦσα πραγματεία οὐ θεωρίας ἕνεκά ἐστιν ὥσπερ αἱ ἄλλαι (οὐ γὰρ ἵνα εἰδῶμεν τί ἐστιν ἡ ἀρετὴ σκεπτόμεθα, ἀλλ᾽ ἵν᾽ ἀγαθοὶ γενώμεθα, ἐπεὶ οὐδὲν ἂν ἦν ὄφελος αὐτῆς), ἀναγκαῖον ἐπισκέψασθαι τὰ περὶ τὰς (30) πράξεις, πῶς πρακτέον αὐτάς· αὗται γάρ εἰσι κύριαι καὶ τοῦ ποιὰς γενέσθαι τὰς ἕξεις, καθάπερ εἰρήκαμεν. (1103b, 25-30)

Επειδή λοιπόν η παρούσα φιλοσοφική μας ενασχόληση δεν έχει ως στόχο της, όπως οι άλλες, τη θεωρητική γνώση (η έρευνά μας δηλαδή δεν γίνεται για να μάθουμε τι είναι η αρετή, αλλά για να γίνουμε ενάρετοι ― αλλιώς δεν θα είχε κανένα νόημα), είναι ανάγκη να εξετάσουμε το θέμα «πράξεις», με το νόημα (30) «πώς πρέπει να τις πράττουμε» ― αυτό, φυσικά, επειδή από αυτές εξαρτάται και το τι θα είναι τελικά οι έξεις μας, όπως το έχουμε ήδη πει. (3, μετάφραση Δ. Λυπουρλής).

Since, then, the present inquiry does not aim at theoretical knowledge like the others (for we are inquiring not in order to know what virtue is, but in order to become good, since otherwise our inquiry would have been of no use), we must examine the nature of actions, namely how we ought to do them; for these determine also the nature of the states of character that are produced, as we have said. (1)

My comment: Aristotle makes it quite clear from the beginning that his inquiry aims at determing how to act. His focus is not theoretical knowledge, but real life and what we do in it.

Eduardo Chillida, Barcelona i
Eduardo Chillida, Barcelona i

Definition of (moral) “arete” 

“…ἀρετὴν δὲ λέγομεν ἀνθρωπίνην οὐ τὴν τοῦ σώματος ἀλλὰ τὴν τῆς ψυχῆς· καὶ τὴν εὐδαιμονίαν δὲ ψυχῆς ἐνέργειαν λέγομεν.” (1102a, 15-20)

Όταν αναφερόμαστε στην ανθρώπινη αρετή, εννοούμε την αρετή της ψυχής, και όχι του σώματος. Και η ευτυχία εξάλλου είναι ενεργούμενο της ψυχής.

By human virtue we mean not that of the body but that of the soul; and happiness also we call an activity of soul. (1)

Διορίζεται δὲ καὶ ἡ ἀρετὴ κατὰ τὴν διαφορὰν ταύτην· λέγομεν γὰρ αὐτῶν τὰς (5) μὲν διανοητικὰς τὰς δὲ ἠθικάς, σοφίαν μὲν καὶ σύνεσιν καὶ φρόνησιν διανοητικάς, ἐλευθεριότητα δὲ καὶ σωφροσύνην ἠθικάς. (1103a, 3-7)

Και στην αρετή διακρίνουμε δύο είδη: διανοητική αρετή, όπως είναι η σοφία και η σύνεση, και ηθική όπως είναι η γενναιοδωρία και η σωφροσύνη.

Virtue too is distinguished into kinds in accordance with this difference; for we say that some of the virtues are intellectual and others moral, philosophic wisdom and understanding and practical wisdom being intellectual, liberality and temperance moral. (1)

“Διττῆς δὴ τῆς ἀρετῆς οὔσης, τῆς μὲν διανοητικῆς τῆς (15) δὲ ἠθικῆς, ἡ μὲν διανοητικὴ τὸ πλεῖον ἐκ διδασκαλίας ἔχει καὶ τὴν γένεσιν καὶ τὴν αὔξησιν, διόπερ ἐμπειρίας δεῖται καὶ χρόνου, ἡ δ᾽ ἠθικὴ ἐξ ἔθους περιγίνεται, ὅθεν καὶ τοὔνομα ἔσχηκε μικρὸν παρεκκλῖνον ἀπὸ τοῦ ἔθους. ἐξ οὗ καὶ δῆλον ὅτι οὐδεμία τῶν ἠθικῶν ἀρετῶν φύσει ἡμῖν ἐγγίνεται·” (1103a, 14-19)

Δύο είναι, όπως είδαμε, τα είδη της αρετής, η διανοητική και η ηθική. (15) Η διανοητική αρετή χρωστάει και τη γένεση και την αύξησή της κατά κύριο λόγο στη διδασκαλία (γιαυτό και εκείνο που χρειάζεται γι’ αυτήν είναι η πείρα και ο χρόνος), ενώ η ηθική αρετή είναι αποτέλεσμα του έθους (και το ίδιο της το όνομα, άλλωστε, μικρή μόνο διαφορά παρουσιάζει από τη λέξη έθος). Αυτό ακριβώς κάνει φανερό ότι καμιά ηθική αρετή δεν υπάρχει μέσα μας εκ φύσεως. (3, μετάφραση Δ. Λυπουρλής).

Virtue, then, being of two kinds, intellectual and moral, intellectual virtue in the main owes both its birth and its growth to teaching (for which reason it requires experience and time), while moral virtue comes about as a result of habit, whence also its name (ethike) is one that is formed by a slight variation from the word ethos (habit). From this it is also plain that none of the moral virtues arises in us by nature; (1)

Eduardo Chillida, Zabaldu
Eduardo Chillida, Zabaldu

Definition and interpretation by C Castoriadis

“Ἔστιν ἄρα ἡ ἀρετὴ ἕξις προαιρετική, ἐν μεσότητι οὖσα τῇ πρὸς ἡμᾶς, ὡρισμένῃ λόγῳ καὶ ᾧ ἂν ὁ φρόνιμος ὁρίσειεν”. (1107a, 1-5)

An almost literal translation of this definition in English would read like this:

“Virtue, then, is a habit or trained faculty of choice, the characteristic of which lies in moderation or observance of the mean relative to the persons concerned, as determined by reason, i.e. by the reason by which the prudent man would determine it.”

Ross translates it as follows: “Virtue, then, is a state of character concerned with choice, lying in a mean, i.e. the mean relative to us, this being determined by a rational principle, and by that principle by which the man of practical wisdom would determine it.” (1)

The French-Greek philosopher Cornelius Castoriadis in one of his seminars (2) has provided a lucid interpretation of Aristotle’s definition, and I would like to share it as I consider it brilliant and illuminating.

Eduardo Chillida, Homenaje a Aime Maeght
Eduardo Chillida, Homenaje a Aime Maeght

Ἔστιν ἄρα ἡ ἀρετὴ ἕξις προαιρετική”

Είναι λοιπόν η αρετή μια συνήθεια απόκτημα ελεύθερης επιλογής

Interpretation: Arete is an acquired inclination, which we do not have since birth and we follow and exercise by choice. Castoriadis discusses the possible use of the word “habitus”, but opts for inclination instead, to emphasize the active element of the word, as opposed to the rather passive nature of “habitus”.Not only arete is an inclination we acquire during life, but we acquire it by choice, not because we were forced to by dire circumstances. Arete is exercised by choice, and cannot be forced.

Eduardo Chillida, Aundi II
Eduardo Chillida, Aundi II

ἐν μεσότητι οὖσα τῇ πρὸς ἡμᾶς”

που βρίσκεται στο ενδιάμεσο των άκρων που καθορίζουμε εμείς οι ίδιοι

Interpretation: Arete lies in the middle ground between extremes, in a context defined by our condition. The middle ground is not necessarily an arithmetic mean or median, and the extremes are not universal or all encompassing, but are defined in the context of “our” condition, and have no meaning without it. The community enters the definition with the “our”, and shatters the strictly individual focus usually attached to arete.

ὡρισμένῃ λόγῳ καὶ ᾧ ἂν ὁ φρόνιμος ὁρίσειεν”.

και προσδιορίζεται από τη λογική που καθορίζει ο φρόνιμος άνθρωπος

Interpetation: Arete is determined by impersonal reason and defined by the man of prudence, which is the ability to reason well within the real conditions of life.

Eduardo Chillida, Zedatu IV
Eduardo Chillida, Zedatu IV

Navigating the middle position

Being in the middle ground, between two extremes, is not an easy task. And attaining the proper position is a matter of perception rather than of reason.

“Τριῶν δὴ διαθέσεων οὐσῶν, δύο μὲν κακιῶν, τῆς μὲν καθ᾽ ὑπερβολὴν τῆς δὲ κατ᾽ ἔλλειψιν, μιᾶς δ᾽ ἀρετῆς τῆς μεσότητος, πᾶσαι πάσαις ἀντίκεινταί πως·” (1108b, 15-20)

There are three kinds of disposition, then, two of them vices, involving excess and deficiency respectively, and one a virtue, viz. the mean, and all are in a sense opposed to all; (1)

“(20) Ὅτι μὲν οὖν ἐστὶν ἡ ἀρετὴ ἡ ἠθικὴ μεσότης, καὶ πῶς, καὶ ὅτι μεσότης δύο κακιῶν, τῆς μὲν καθ᾽ ὑπερβολὴν τῆς δὲ κατ᾽ ἔλλειψιν, καὶ ὅτι τοιαύτη ἐστὶ διὰ τὸ στοχαστικὴ τοῦ μέσου εἶναι τοῦ ἐν τοῖς πάθεσι καὶ ἐν ταῖς πράξεσιν, ἱκανῶς εἴρηται. διὸ καὶ ἔργον ἐστὶ σπουδαῖον εἶναι.” (1109a, 20-25)

That moral virtue is a mean, then, and in what sense it is so, and that it is a mean between two vices, the one involving excess, the other deficiency, and that it is such because its character is to aim at what is intermediate in passions and in actions, has been sufficiently stated. Hence also it is no easy task to be good. (1)

“ἀλλ᾽ ὁ μὲν μικρὸν τοῦ εὖ παρεκβαίνων οὐ ψέγεται, οὔτ᾽ ἐπὶ τὸ μᾶλλον οὔτ᾽ ἐπὶ τὸ (20) ἧττον, ὁ δὲ πλέον· οὗτος γὰρ οὐ λανθάνει. ὁ δὲ μέχρι τίνος καὶ ἐπὶ πόσον ψεκτὸς οὐ ῥᾴδιον τῷ λόγῳ ἀφορίσαι· οὐδὲ γὰρ ἄλλο οὐδὲν τῶν αἰσθητῶν· τὰ δὲ τοιαῦτα ἐν τοῖς καθ᾽ ἕκαστα, καὶ ἐν τῇ αἰσθήσει ἡ κρίσις.” (1109b, 20-25)

The man, however, who deviates little from goodness is not blamed, whether he do so in the direction of the more or of the less, but only the man who deviates more widely; for he does not fail to be noticed. But up to what point and to what extent a man must deviate before he becomes blameworthy it is not easy to determine by reasoning, any more than anything else that is perceived by the senses; such things depend on particular facts, and the decision rests with perception. (1)


(1) Αριστοτέλους, Ηθικά Νικομάχεια. [ed. J. Bywater, Aristotle’s Ethica Nicomachea. Oxford, 1894] translated by William David Ross. I own the “Oxford World’s Classics” 2009 printed edition.

(2) Κορνήλιος Καστοριάδης, Η Ελληνική Ιδιαιτερότητα, Τόμος Γ”, Θουκυδίδης, η ισχύς και το δίκαιο. Εκδόσεις Κριτική, Αθήνα 2011. Please note that the Castoriadis book is in Greek, and the translation into English is mine. In addition, I have not used Castoriadis’ statements verbatim, but with a sense of poetic license.

(3) Πύλη. Αρχαία Ελληνική Γλώσσα και Γραμματεία. Αριστοτέλους, Ηθικά Νικομάχεια