Aristotle’s Rhetoric, Book 1, Chapter 9

By Bekah and Michelle for English 3080/Rhetoric, New Media, and Democracy

In Chapter 9 of his Rhetoric, Aristotle seeks to define virtue and vice.  He begins by speaking about virtue.  He argues that what is virtuous is also noble, and then goes on to list a number of traits that he considers to be virtuous, many of which he also qualifies as noble  According to Aristotle:

The components of virtue are justice, courage, self-control, magnificence, magnanimity, liberality, gentleness, practical and speculative wisdom.

He then goes on to elaborate more on these points, and lists their opposites, which he considers vices.

Aristotle makes the point that any component of virtue or acts relating to a component of virtue or acts resulting in a component of virtue, are themselves virtuous.  So, courageous, just, or generous acts are virtuous.  He goes on to explain other virtuous acts, and he describes what makes one act more virtuous than another.

And those things are noble which it is possible for a man to possess after death rather than during his lifetime.

Aristotle stresses that selfless acts and acts done for the sake of others are the most noble and virtuous, while acts or thoughts that cause shame are disgraceful and stem from vice.

As Aristotle continues to define what is noble and virtuous, his claims begin to feel a little outdated by today’s standards.  Aristotle argues that an act can be judged more or less worthy according to the person responsible. For example, the same act performed by a woman is less virtuous than that act performed by a man, because men are worthier than women.  Aristotle also argues that it is nobler (more virtuous) to exact vengeance on an enemy rather than work out differences, a notion that seems totally backwards today. However, he goes on to explain this opinion:

Victory and honor also are noble; for both are desirable even when they are fruitless, and are manifestations of superior virtue.

His explanation seems to justify his point a bit, which may speak more to Aristotle’s own mastery of rhetoric rather than the actual validity of the idea.

As Aristotle continues, he shares the insight that what is considered virtuous might vary by culture and that what and how we praise might differ according to the company a person keeps.  He talks a lot about praise, and warns that we must be careful not to praise things as virtuous when they are not, for example, being foolhardy isn’t exactly being courageous. Aristotle stresses the importance of having a good knowledge of virtue and vice, so that one can give praise or blame without being mistaken.

 

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