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Blindness in Vice, Humility in Virtue

“For the brave person, for instance, appears rash in comparison to the coward, and cowardly in comparison to the rash person; the temperate person appears intemperate in comparison to the insensible person, and insensible in comparison with the intemperate person; and the generous person appears wasteful in comparison to the ungenerous, and ungenerous in comparison to the wasteful person. That is why each of the extreme people tries to push the intermediate person to the other extreme, so that the coward, for instance, calls the brave person rash, and the rash person calls him a coward, and similarly in the other cases.”               – Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics

I came across this passage and it struck me as both eminently important and immediately humbling. Located towards the end of Book II, this quotation comes in the midst of his discussion of virtues of character. Though these virtues are learned primarily by imitation of virtuous people, judging whether others are virtuous proves difficult, as Aristotle above describes how one’s own character impacts his view of others. I am struck particularly by two ideas. 

A virtuous person will always be criticized.

If Aristotle is to be believed, no one makes more enemies than the virtuous person. This is certainly supported by a large body of evidence; the pages of history run red with the blood of good men and women who were hated, tortured, and put to death by the wicked. Socrates, Antigone, and Jesus of Nazareth all shared this fate, as did countless heroes remembered with pride and martyrs lost to the ages. These virtuous people are almost universally hated in their own times because their virtue is perceived as vice by both the excessive and the deficient.

Because the virtuous person stands between two vices in every area, he or she is always at odds with the vicious (meaning those filled with vice) simply by being virtuous. The temperate man offends both the intemperate and the insensible; the brave woman offends both the rash and the coward. In all cases, one sees others through the lens of his own virtue or vice. The prude will see even the most temperate drinker as an intemperate drunkard, but the alcoholic will view the moderate drinker as stuffy and dull. The virtuous person should take heart, then, knowing that their virtue will inevitably bring about persecution from the masses. Virtue will alienate the vicious on either side, as only the virtuous are uncorrupted by vice and can see virtue and vice rightly. 

Be cautious in criticism of others.

Because only the virtuous can judge virtue and vice rightly, I must be very cautious in criticism of others. To fairly assert that my neighbor is a coward, for instance, requires that I not be rash. It is hard for me to be certain that my neighbor is deficient; what if I am simply excessive and he is appropriately moderate? My perception is blurred by my vice. Initially, I view my positions and states of character as the moderate ones in all areas, as I want to think myself reasonable and virtuous. Thus, when I, who have a bent towards rashness, see appropriately moderate, brave behavior, I tend to think of it as cowardly. Because my vice so fully informs the way I perceive things, I cannot safely make judgments about others until I have thoroughly examined myself.

The ethical humility necessary to take this approach must be what we all strive to find. We must balance out our willingness to stand on our convictions with our willingness to be proven wrong. We must act virtuously with boldness, but be continuously searching for and attempting to eradicate the vice that clouds our vision. Aristotle prescribes this simultaneous upholding of both conviction and humility as the cure to the disastrous state of modern ethical discourse. May I take his lesson to heart.

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