According to Aristotle in his Nicomachean Ethics, the human good (a life of eudaimonia or ‘flourishing’) is achieved by living a life of virtue. Aristotle identifies two broad characters of virtue: moral virtues (virtues of character) and intellectual virtues. The moral virtues take up the bulk of the discussion, with Aristotle, for instance, taking an entire book to discuss the top of justice. Because the intellectual virtues are not discussed to the same extent, this may give the impression that they are of lesser importance to the character virtues. However, Aristotle argues that both sets of virtues are essential for the good life. If anything the intellectual virtues are superior since they will govern how one makes moral decisions.
Another important point for Aristotle is that you cannot simply pick a handful of virtues and decide to excel in these. Rather, you must aim at excelling in all the virtues. Hence, this is the major role of the intellectual virtues: to fully support the moral virtues in achieving a peak of excellence.
While this seem like a clear enough aim for the intellectual virtues, Aristotle confuses the picture with his discussion of philosophy in Book 10. Later in this post, I will consider whether this forces us to change our understanding of the intellectual virtues.
The first point worth exploring is exactly what the intellectual virtues are. This occurs in Book 6 of the Ethics. Aristotle identifies five intellectual virtues in total. All the virtues are related to honing one’s mind to better enhance the ability to make practical decisions. Some examples of the intellectual virtues include prudence (taking the right amount of time to make a decision), ‘nous’ (having the ability to grasp first principles), and most importantly, wisdom (the ability to tie all the different intellectual virtues into one system that provides the support for rational decision making).
The next point worth clarifying in terms of intellectual virtues is how they differ from the moral virtues. Aristotle accepts that both types have some features in common. For instance, both do not occur naturally in a human being, and must be cultivated via repeated habit. Both offer the moral agent a choice in regards to whether they should pursue ‘good’ or ‘evil’, so it the choice more than anything that reflects the nature of one’s true character (as opposed to say a more consequentialist view of one’s actions).
However, there are two main differences between the two types of virtue. Firstly, the moral virtues are determined by referring to the ‘doctrine of the mean’, by finding the point between the two extremes that best reflects a decision made rationally. For instance, in the case of courage, the mean is neither being too reckless and bold, nor being too cowardly and afraid. Rather, the mean is feeling the fear, but still entering the battle nonetheless.
In the case of the intellectual virtues though, there is less scope for the doctrine of the mean. Apart from prudence, which as discussed above does require one to choose between two extremes, the remaining intellectual virtues do not have any concept of a mean. Rather than making them appear less important, this only strengthens the role of the intellectual virtues. Sometimes a more extreme position might be called for in the situation. For instance, it may be entirely appropriate to become angry if the circumstances warrant this. Aristotle does not want to tie his system of ethics to any moral ‘rules’.
The second difference between the two virtues occurs in the way we judge the quality of one’s actions. While this is relatively easy to do with the moral virtues – as these are based on specific acts – it may be less easy to judge the quality of someone’s intellectual virtues. This therefore suggests that the intellectual virtues have to be judged in a more subjectively manner, as an outside observer will be unable to know exactly why the moral agent reached the decision they did. This could be said to weaken Aristotle’s position in that his moral system relies upon factors that cannot meet any objective standards of proof.
Summing up this part of the Ethics, we can say that the intellectual virtues have an equal if not superior role to that of the moral virtues, and both are required to build character. However, Aristotle seems to offer us an alternative interpretation in Book 10, which suggests the intellectual virtues are vastly superior to the moral virtues. Similar to Plato, he holds that philosophy is the best form of life, so anyone who pursues a life engaged in philosophical thought is living the best possible life of them all. On the surface, this is difficult to reconcile with his earlier position that the intellectual virtues are equal to those of the moral virtues.
One possible way to reconcile this is that argued by David Charles in his essay. We should see the soul as having many parts, each of which needs to be nourished in different ways. The best part of our soul requires philosophical thinking, however the majority of people will lack this particular ‘best part’, so will have to contend with fulfilling the other parts of the soul, such as living in harmony with fellow humans. Indeed, Aristotle’s Ethicscontains a strong component of having to share one’s life with others, so a life of virtue can still be obtained by dedicating oneself to harmony with his or her fellow citizens. However given a choice – and ideal circumstances – one is best to pursue a purely intellectual life of philosophy.
The intellectual virtues can then be read in two ways according to Aristotle. For the bulk of people, their role is to support the moral virtues in acquiring good character through repeated habit. However, for a few special people, the intellectual virtues are the supreme way to achieve the human good, almost a God-like form of good. This division could be seen as elitist (similar to the three ‘castes’ of Plato’s Republic), however Aristotle is not downplaying the life of ethical virtue. Rather, it is still essential to a good life.