A Critical Comparison of Socrates and Aristotles Accounts of Virtue

On Virtue Aristotle and Socrates
Aristotle and Socrates, in the course of their philosophical careers, have tried to give their opinions on the notion of virtue. And in many ways, their accounts manifest similarity with how we presently understand it. Usually, virtue is something which we regard as excellence something which can be seen in ones conduct (Merriam-Webster, 2010). In other words, virtue is essentially related to what is good and righteous. But while both philosophers accounts on virtue exhibit relations with the notions of excellence and righteousness, there are, nevertheless, striking dissimilarities in the manner by which they treated the same topic.

Socrates, being chiefly concerned with the practical application of human knowledge with life, defines virtue in relation to human activities. This means that Socrates understands virtue as an excellence that is seen in the good things that people do. But what is interesting about his notion of virtue lies in the fact that he defines it as a kind of knowledge that precedes any good act or deed that one is supposed to do. Simply put, virtue is something that already exists in the mind of a person before one can even apply it to his or her actions. For instance, if a person were to see a toddler drowning and gasping for air while swimming in a pool, any attempt to save the boys life can be called virtuous.

But the desire to save the boys life, which in itself is essentially good, is already present even before one decides to jump and rescue him from drowning. If one therefore examines closely, it would appear that a person who has decided to do something good has already had the desire for it. Knowledge of virtue, therefore, as articulated by Krishananada (2010), precedes its practice. Thus, if Socrates regards virtue as the desire for (what) one believes to be good (Kemerling, 2002), then he believes that virtue is a kind of knowledge of the good which is already present in our human mind or in our human soul.

Like Socrates, Aristotles notion of virtue is closely related to the concept of the good. In fact, like Socrates, Aristotle thinks that virtue is something that achieves excellence or goodness. This is because Aristotles philosophy is highly teleological, or, in simpler terms, chiefly concerned with the achievement of an end or result. But unlike Socrates, who defined virtue as a kind of inherent knowledge of the human soul, Aristotle defines virtue as a state of excellence which a certain person must observe in his or her life. In other words, Aristotle defines virtue as a means to achieve a good end. In the Nicomachean Ethics, he writes virtue is what brings into good condition the thing of which it is excellence and makes the work of that thing be done well (Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Book 2, Number 6).

Aristotle conceives virtue as a state of character and therefore, it is something that human persons decide to do, and not merely know. A state of character is achieved only when one decides for it. Here, one may correctly say that Aristotle goes beyond knowledge in construing virtue. Unlike Socrates, Aristotle believes that knowledge alone, or the concept of virtue alone, does not lead to a virtuous life. The eyes, he cites as an example, do not become virtuous unless they are used to achieve that good for which they were first of all made  i.e., to see (Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Book 2, Number 6). Virtue entails the achievement of a good end anything less falls short of virtuosity.
In using the previous example, it can be said that a person does not become virtuous only by desiring to save a boy from drowning. Contrary to how Socrates saw it, Aristotle submits that virtue is more than the desire to do something good. Virtue is an actual decision to achieve a measurable or concrete goodness in the end.

Brief Assessment and Evaluation of Both Accounts
I am of the firm opinion that both Socrates and Aristotle were able to submit very good explanations on the philosophical notion of virtue. On the one hand, Socrates said that virtue is an inherent character of the soul, which is expressed in the desire to do something good. On the other hand, Aristotle taught that virtue is something one decides to do, with the intention of doing something good in ones mind. I believe that by bringing together Socrates and Aristotles different but related notions of virtue, one can say that virtue is an excellence that we can exercise both in our knowledge and in our actions. In many ways therefore, I find both theories complementary.

That being said, I believe that Aristotles logic has more weight in terms of applying in ones life than that of Socrates. Socrates thesis takes cue from his belief that human soul is eternal, and that our knowledge merely recovers the memories that we forgot when we were created as human persons. This is the reason why Socrates notion of virtue is pre-existent  i.e., we already know it beforehand, and we just need to remember it.

I do not think however that we can know all the things that may be called excellent or virtuous. To the contrary, I honestly believe that virtue must be learned and cultivated in ones life. True, we have a special leaning to do something good. But this does not mean that we can be good only by our knowledge of the good things. Which is why, I find Aristotles logic more applicable in life, being that his theory of virtue allows human person to apply ones idea of excellence in his or her concrete human actions.

Aristotle is therefore right. One does not simply become virtuous by knowing what virtue is. Instead, one becomes virtuous by deciding to use his or her knowledge of excellence into concrete acts of charity and goodness.


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