Aristotle (384-322 BCE.): Ethics

Three words that loom large over any understanding of the Nicomachean Ethics are habit, the mean, and noble. The first is too often given a misplaced and exaggerated emphasis, the second is hard to get a good sense of, and the third is not really there at all. This essay will be an attempt to get a few things straight about these words, which when misunderstood can lead us far away from Aristotle's intentions, but might, if brought into some clarity, give us a chance to uncover those intentions.


In many discussions, the word habit is attached to the Ethics as though it were the answer to a multiple-choice question on a philosophy achievement test. Hobbes' Leviathan? Self-preservation. Descartes' Meditations? Mind-body problem. Aristotle's Ethics? Habit. A faculty seminar I attended a few years ago was mired in the opinion that Aristotle thinks the good life is one of mindless routine. More recently, I heard a lecture in which some very good things were said about Aristotle's discussion of choice, yet the speaker still criticized him for praising habit when so much that is important in life depends on openness and spontaneity. Can it really be that Aristotle thought life is lived best when thinking and choosing are eliminated?

On its face this belief makes no sense. It is partly a confusion between an effect and one of its causes. Aristotle says that, for the way our lives turn out, "it makes no small difference to be habituated this way or that way straight from childhood, but an enormous difference, or rather all the difference." (1103b, 23-5) Is this not the same as saying those lives are nothing but collections of habits? If this is what sticks in your memory, and leads you to that conclusion, then the cure is easy, since habits are not the only effects of habituation, and a thing that makes all the difference is indispensable but not necessarily the only cause of what it produces.

We will work through this thought in a moment, but first we need to notice that another kind of influence may be at work when you recall what Aristotle says about habit, and another kind of medicine may be needed against it. Are you thinking that no matter how we analyze the effects of habituation, we will never get around the fact that Aristotle plainly says that virtues are habits? The reply to that difficulty is that he doesn't say that at all. He says that moral virtue is a hexis. Hippocrates Apostle, and others, translate hexis as habit, but that is not at all what it means. The trouble, as so often in these matters, is the intrusion of Latin. The Latin habitus is a perfectly good translation of the Greek hexis, but if that detour gets us to habit in English we have lost our way. In fact, a hexis is pretty much the opposite of a habit.

The word hexis becomes an issue in Plato's Theaetetus. Socrates makes the point that knowledge can never be a mere passive possession, stored in the memory the way birds can be put in cages. The word for that sort of possession, kt

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