Marcus Aurelius – Virtue and Character

1. Terminology

The English word “character” is derived from the Greek charaktêr, which was originally used of a mark impressed upon a coin. Later and more generally, “character” came to mean a distinctive mark by which one thing was distinguished from others, and then primarily to mean the assemblage of qualities that distinguish one individual from another. In modern usage, this emphasis on distinctiveness or individuality tends to merge “character” with “personality.” We might say, for example, when thinking of a person’s idiosyncratic mannerisms, social gestures, or habits of dress, that “he has personality” or that “he’s quite a character.”

As the Introduction above has suggested, however, the philosophical use of the word “character” has a different linguistic history. At the beginning of Book II of the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle tells us that there are two different kinds of human excellences, excellences of thought and excellences of character. His phrase for excellences of character — êthikai aretai — we usually translate as “moral virtue(s)” or “moral excellence(s).” The Greek êthikos (ethical) is the adjective cognate with êthos (character). When we speak of a moral virtue or an excellence of character, the emphasis is not on mere distinctiveness or individuality, but on the combination of qualities that make an individual the sort of ethically admirable person he is.

This entry will discuss “moral character” in the Greek sense of having or lacking moral virtue. If someone lacks virtue, she may have any of several moral vices, or she may be characterized by a condition somewhere in between virtue and vice, such as continence or incontinence.

2. Some ancient Greek views

2.1 Why character matters

The views of moral character held by Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics are the starting point for most other philosophical discussions of character. Although these ancient moralists differed on some issues about virtue, it makes sense to begin with some points of similarity. These points of similarity will show why the Greek moralists thought it was important to discuss character.

Many of Plato’s dialogues (especially the early or so-called “Socratic” dialogues) examine the nature of virtue and the character of a virtuous person. They often begin by having Socrates ask his interlocutors to explain what a particular virtue is. In reply, the interlocutors usually offer behavioral accounts of the virtues. For example, at the beginning of Plato’s Laches the character Laches suggests that courage consists of standing one’s ground in battle. In the Charmides, Charmides suggests that temperance consists in acting quietly. In the Republic, Cephalus suggests that justice consists in giving back what one has borrowed. In each of these cases, Plato has Socrates reply in the same way. In the Republic Socrates explains that giving back what one has borrowed cannot be what justice is, for there are cases where giving back what one has borrowed would be foolish, and the just person recognizes that it is foolish. If the person from whom you have borrowed a sword goes mad, it would be foolish for you to return the sword, for you are then putting yourself and others in danger. The implication is that the just person can recognize when it is reasonable to return what he has borrowed. Similarly, as Socrates explains in the Laches, standing firm in battle cannot be courage, for sometimes standing firm in battle is simply a foolish endurance that puts oneself and others at needless risk. The courageous person can recognize when it is reasonable to stand his ground in battle and when it isn’t.

The trouble one encounters in trying to give a purely behavioral account of virtue explains why the Greek moralists turn to character to explain what virtue is. It may be true that most of us can recognize that it would be foolish to risk our lives and the lives of others to secure a trivial benefit, and that most of us can see that it is unjust to harm others to secure power and wealth for our own comfort. We don’t have to be virtuous to recognize these things. But the Greek moralists think it takes someone of good moral character to determine with regularity and reliability what actions are appropriate and reasonable in fearful situations and that it takes someone of good moral character to determine with regularity and reliability how and when to secure goods and resources for himself and others. This is why Aristotle states in Nicomachean Ethics II.9 that it is not easy to define in rules which actions deserve moral praise and blame, and that these matters require the judgment of the virtuous person.

2.2 Virtue and happiness

Most of the Greek moralists think that, if we are rational, we aim at living well (eu zên) or happiness (eudaimonia). Living well or happiness is our ultimate end in that a conception of happiness serves to organize our various subordinate ends, by indicating the relative importance of our ends and by indicating how they should fit together into some rational overall scheme. So the Stoics identify happiness with “living coherently” (homologoumenôs zên), and Aristotle says that happiness is “perfect” or “complete” (teleios) and something distinctively human. When we are living well, our life is worthy of imitation and admiration. For, according to the Greek moralists, that we are happy says something about us and about what we have achieved, not simply about the fortunate circumstances in which we find ourselves. So they argue that happiness cannot consist simply in “external goods” or “goods of fortune,” for these goods are external to our own choosing and deciding. Whatever happiness is, it must take account of the fact that a happy life is one lived by rational agents who act and who are not simply victims of their circumstances.

The Greek moralists conclude that a happy life must give a prominent place to the exercise of virtue, for virtuous traits of character are stable and enduring and are not products of fortune, but of learning or cultivation. Moreover, virtuous traits of character are excellences of the human being in that they are the best exercise of reason, which is the activity characteristic of human beings. In this way, the Greek philosophers claim, virtuous activity completes or perfects human life.

2.3 Some Greek disagreements about virtue

Although the Greek philosophers agree that happiness requires virtue and hence that a happy person must have virtuous traits of character such as wisdom, bravery, temperance, and justice, they disagree about how to understand these traits. As explained in Section 2.1 above, several of Plato’s dialogues criticize the view that virtues are merely tendencies to act in particular ways. Bravery requires more than standing up against threats to oneself and others. Bravery also requires recognizing when standing up to these threats is reasonable and appropriate, and it requires acting on one’s recognition. This led the Greek moralists to conclude that virtuous traits of character have two aspects: (a) a behavioral aspect — doing particular kinds of action and (b) a psychological aspect — having the right motives, aims, concerns, and perspective. The Greek philosophers disagree mostly about what (b) involves. In particular, they differ about the role played in virtuous traits of character by cognitive states (e.g., knowledge and belief) on the one hand and affective states (e.g., desires, feelings, and emotions) on the other. Socrates and the Stoics argued that only cognitive states were necessary for virtue, whereas Plato and Aristotle argued that both cognitive and affective states were necessary.

Socrates (469–399 BCE)

In Plato’s Protagoras, Socrates seems to identify happiness with pleasure and to explain the various virtues as instrumental means to pleasure. On this view (later revived by Epicurus, 341–271 BCE), having a virtuous character is purely a matter of being knowledgeable of what brings us more pleasure rather than less. In the Protagoras, Socrates recognizes that most people object to this view. The “many” suppose that having a virtuous character requires more than knowledge, because knowledge does not guarantee that one will act on one’s knowledge and do the virtuous action. Someone may be overcome by anger, fear, lust, and other desires, and act against what he believes will bring him more pleasure rather than less. He can, in other words, be incontinent or weak-willed. Socrates replies that such cases should be understood differently. When, for example, a cowardly person flees from battle rather than endanger his life, even though he may seem to be pursuing the more pleasant action, he is really just ignorant of the greater pleasure to be achieved by entering battle and acting bravely. In other words, incontinence is not possible, according to Socrates.

Plato (428–347 BCE)

The “many”’s worry about the inadequacy of knowledge to ensure virtuous action suggests that virtuous character includes not only a cognitive element, but also some affective element. Both Plato and Aristotle argue that virtuous character requires a distinctive combination of cognitive and affective elements. In the Republic, Plato divides the soul into three parts and gives to each a different kind of desire (rational, appetitive, or spirited). As types of non-rational desire, appetitive and spirited desires can conflict with our rational desires about what contributes to our overall good, and they will sometimes move us to act in ways we recognize to be against our greater good. When that happens, we are incontinent. To be virtuous, then, we must both understand what contributes to our overall good and have our spirited and appetitive desires educated properly, so that they agree with the guidance provided by the rational part of the soul. Plato describes the education of the non-rational parts of the soul in Books II and III of the Republic. A potentially virtuous person learns when young to love and take pleasure in virtuous actions, but must wait until late in life to develop the understanding that explains why what he loves is good. Once he has learned what the good is, his informed love of the good explains why he acts as he does and why his actions are virtuous.

2.4 Aristotle (384–322 BCE)

Aristotle accepts Plato’s division of the soul into two basic parts (rational and non-rational) and agrees that both parts contribute to virtuous character. Of all the Greek moralists, Aristotle provides the most psychologically insightful account of virtuous character. Because most modern philosophical treatments of character (see Section 4 below) are indebted to Aristotle’s analysis, it is best to discuss his position in some detail.

Aristotle’s definition of good moral character

Aristotle defines virtuous character in Nicomachean Ethics II.7:

Excellence [of character], then, is a state concerned with choice, lying in a mean relative to us, this being determined by reason and in the way in which the man of practical wisdom would determine it. Now it is a mean between two vices, that which depends on excess and that which depends on defect. (1106b36–1107a3)

By calling excellence of character a state, Aristotle means that it is neither a feeling nor a capacity nor a mere tendency to behave in specific ways. Rather it is the settled condition we are in when we are well off in relation to feelings and actions. We are well off in relation to our feelings and actions when we are in a mean or intermediate state in regard to them. If, on the other hand, we have a vicious character, we are badly off in relation to feelings and actions, and we fail to hit the mean in regard to them.

Virtue as a mean state

Aristotle emphasizes that the mean state is not an arithmetic mean, but one relative to the situation. The different particular virtues provide illustrations of what Aristotle means. Each virtue is set over or concerned with specific feelings or actions. The virtue of mildness or good temper, for example, is concerned with anger. Aristotle thinks that a mild person ought to be angry about some things (e.g., about injustice and other forms of mistreatment) and should be willing to stand up for himself and those he cares about. Not to do so would, in Aristotle’s view, indicate the morally deficient character of the inirascible person. It would also be inappropriate to take offense and get angry if there is nothing worth getting angry about. That response would indicate the morally excessive character of the irascible person. The mild person’s reactions are appropriate to the situation. Sometimes intense anger is appropriate; at other times calm detachment is.

The psychological unity of the virtuous person and the disunity of non-virtuous conditions

That the virtuous person’s emotional responses are appropriate to the situation indicates that her emotional responses are in harmony with her correct reasoning about what to do. Aristotle says that the non-rational part of a virtuous person’s soul “speaks with the same voice” (homophôneiNE 1102b28) as the rational part. That the virtuous person’s soul is unified and not torn by conflict distinguishes the state of being virtuous from various non-virtuous conditions such as continence (enkrateia), incontinence (akrasia), and vice (kakia) in general.

Aristotle seems to think that, at bottom, any non-virtuous person is plagued by inner doubt or conflict, even if on the surface she appears to be as psychologically unified as virtuous people. Although a vicious person may appear to be single-minded about her disdain for justice and her pursuit of material goods and power, she must seek out others’ company to forget or ignore her own actions. Aristotle seems to have this point in mind when he says of vicious people in Nicomachean Ethics IX.4 that they are at odds with themselves and do not love themselves. Virtuous persons, on the other hand, enjoy who they are and take pleasure in acting virtuously.

Like the morally vicious person, the continent and incontinent persons are internally conflicted, but they are more aware of their inner turmoil than the morally vicious person. Continence is essentially a kind of self-mastery: the continent person recognizes what she should do and does it, but to do so she must struggle against the pull of recalcitrant feelings. The incontinent person also in some way knows what she should do, but she fails to do it because of recalcitrant feelings.

Aristotle’s position on incontinence seems to incorporate both Socratic and Platonic elements. Recall that Socrates had explained apparently incontinent behavior as the result of ignorance of what leads to the good. Since, he thought, everyone desires the good and aims at it in his actions, no one would intentionally choose a course of action believed to yield less good overall. Plato, on the other hand, argued that incontinence can occur when a person’s non-rational desires move him to act in ways not endorsed by his rational desire for the greater good. Aristotle seems to agree with Socrates that the cognitive state of the incontinent person is defective at the moment of incontinent behavior, but he also agrees with Plato that a person’s non-rational desires cause the incontinent action. This may be what Aristotle means when he writes that “the position that Socrates sought to establish actually seems to result; for it is not what is thought to be knowledge proper that the passion overcomes . . . but perceptual knowledge.” (NE 1147b14–17)

Moral education and the human function

Because Aristotle thinks that virtue is a unified, unconflicted state where emotional responses and rational assessments speak with the same voice, he, like Plato, thinks that the education of our emotional responses is crucial for the development of virtuous character. If our emotional responses are educated properly, we will learn to take pleasure or pain in the right things. Like Plato, Aristotle thinks that we can take a person’s pleasures and pains to be a sign of his state of character.

To explain what the virtuous person’s pleasures are like, Aristotle returns to the idea that virtue is an excellent state of the person. Virtue is the state that makes a human being good and makes him perform his function well. His function (his ergon or characteristic activity), Aristotle says in Nicomachean Ethics I.7, is rational activity, so when we perform rational activity well, we are good (virtuous) human beings and live well (we are happy).

Scholars disagree about what kind of rational activity Aristotle means. Some scholars think Aristotle is referring to theoretical rational activity (“contemplation” or theôria), the kind we engage in when we consider metaphysical and scientific truths of the universe. Others think Aristotle is referring to practical rational activity, the kind we engage in when we think about and solve ethical problems and consider the truths of how to live. (For a discussion of theoretical and practical reason in Aristotle, see the related entry on Aristotle’s ethics.) For the purposes of this discussion, we will assume that theoretical and practical rational activity are at least related types of rational activity, in that each involves exercising one’s abilities to think and to know and to consider truths that one has figured out.

When someone has developed his abilities to think and to know to the point where they are indefinitely extendable with no natural stopping points, he has realized these abilities fully. When that happens, his exercise of these abilities is a continuing source of self-esteem and enjoyment. He comes to like his life and himself and is now a genuine self-lover. In Nicomachean EthicsIX.8, Aristotle takes pains to distinguish true self-love, which characterizes the virtuous person, from vulgar self-love, which characterizes morally defective types. Morally defective types love themselves in the sense that they love material goods and advantages. They desire to secure these things even at the expense of other people, and so they act in ways that are morally vicious. Genuine self-lovers, on the other hand, love most the exercise of their developed human activity, which is rational activity. When they enjoy and recognize the value of developing their rational powers, they can use this recognition to guide their decisions and to determine which actions are appropriate in which circumstances. This is the reasoning of those who have practical wisdom (phronêsis). Moreover, because they now take pleasure in the right things (they enjoy most figuring things out rather than the accumulation of wealth or power), they will avoid many of the actions, and will be unattracted to many of the pleasures, associated with the common vices. In other words, they will act as a virtuous person would.

The need for relationships and community

According to Aristotle, the full realization of our rational powers is not something we can achieve or maintain on our own. It is hard, he says, for a solitary person to be continuously active, but it is easier with others. This is true even for the activity of contemplation, which, Aristotle says, is done better with colleagues. So we need at least a group of companions who share our interests and aims, and who provoke us to think more and to achieve greater understanding of what we observe. Rational activity performed in the company of competent others makes our own rational activity more continuous and a more stable source of enjoyment and self-esteem. As we develop our abilities to think and know in the context of social groups, the enjoyment we take in learning and thinking affects our emotional attitudes and desires. We develop friendly feelings toward those who share our activities, and we come to develop a concern for their good for their own sakes. Once bonds of friendship are formed, it is natural for us to exhibit the social virtues Aristotle describes in Nicomachean Ethics IV.6–8, which include generosity, friendliness, and mildness of temper.

Aristotle thinks that, in addition to friendships, wider social relations are required for the full development of our rational powers. He says we are by nature political beings, whose capacities are fully realized in a specific kind of political community (a polis or city-state). Aristotle’s ideal political community is led by citizens who recognize the value of living fully active lives and whose aim is to make the best life possible for their fellow citizens. When citizens deliberate and legislate about the community’s educational, office-holding, and economic policies, their goal is to determine and promote the conditions under which citizens can fully develop their powers to think and to know.

Thus Aristotle recommends in the Politics VII-VIII that the city provide a system of public education for all citizens, a recommendation that was radical for his time. He envisions that young people will learn not simply to read and write, but also to appreciate the beauty of the world around them and to gain some understanding of how the universe works. If education is successful, young people will want to use their powers in deciding, judging, and discriminating. They will then be well-positioned to take their place as decision-makers in the citizen assembly and, because of sortition and a system of office rotation, as eventual holders of public office. The city’s economic policies support the aim of the political and educational institutions. Because Aristotle sees that citizens need material resources if they are to participate fully in public life, he recommends that the state distribute parcels of land to all. Yet there is no need, in his view, to establish economic equality, as long as existing inequalities are not large enough to promote the formation of elite groups or to provoke justified anger or envy. These various policies — educational, political, economic — make it possible for a sense of justice to pervade the city, as they serve to confirm that all citizens are valued as equal practical deliberators and policy-makers.

Aristotle’s criticisms of deviant political states take a related line: states that encourage the consumption and accumulation of external goods for their own sake, or states that promote warfare and military supremacy as an end in itself, mistake the nature of the best human life. Citizens of such states will grow up to love most something other than the exercise of realilzed human rational powers, and as a result they will be prone to such traditional vices as injustice, lack of generosity, and intemperance.

For more detailed discussion of the relation between Aristotle’s ethical and political views, see Kraut (2002).


Plato and Aristotle agree that excellent moral character involves more than a Socratic understanding of the good. They think that virtue requires a harmony between cognitive and affective elements of the person. Aristotle tries to explain what this harmony consists in by exploring the psychological foundations of moral character. He thinks that the virtuous person is characterized by a nonstereotypical self-love that he understands as a love of the exercise of fully realized rational activity. Yet this self-love is not an individual achievement. Its development and preservation require (a) friendships in which individuals come to desire the good of others for others’ own sakes and (b) political institutions that promote the conditions under which self-love and friendship flourish.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s