Explain Aristotle’s Discussion of the “Function of a Human Being”

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Prompt: Explain Aristotle’s discussion of the “function of a human being” in Book 1 Chapter 7 relates to his view that the virtues are means between extremes. To start off the discussion, one must take into account that “the function of man is an activity of soul which follows or implies a rational principle” (Book 1 Chapter 7). “Now there are three things in the soul which control action and truth — sensation, reason, desire.

Of these sensation originates no action; this is plain from the fact that the lower animals have sensation but no share in action…pursuit and avoidance are in desire; so that since moral virtue is a state of character concerned with choice, and choice is deliberate desire, therefore both the reasoning must be true and the desire right, if the choice is to be good, and the latter must pursue just what the former asserts…The origin of action — its efficient, not its final cause — is choice, and that of choice is desire and reasoning with a view to an end.

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This is why choice cannot exist either without reason and intellect” (Book 6 Chapter 2). Stating that the “function of a human being” is an action in accordance to the part of the soul that has reason, Aristotle furthers the discussion by stating that all actions aim at some good and that the highest good is happiness. Every action is done for the sake of happiness and happiness is wanted for its own sake. Now in order to attain happiness, one must understand that virtue is our realization of what our happiness is.

To acquire perfect virtue, one must be virtuous. To be virtuous, one must have a consistency in the repetition of good actions. To perform good actions, one must have good choice. To have good choice, the desire must be right. To understand right desire, one must have reason. To act in accordance to the part of the soul that has reason is performing the function of a human being. Therefore, the function of a human being is to attain happiness by acquiring perfect virtue by acting in accordance to the part of the soul that has reason.

To understand how the function of a human being relates to virtue, the role of virtue must be taken into account. Virtue makes us good at realizing our happiness. “Since happiness is an activity of soul in accordance with perfect virtue, we must consider the nature of virtue… some of the virtues are intellectual and others moral, philosophic wisdom and understanding and practical wisdom being intellectual, liberality and temperance moral.

For in speaking about a man’s character we do not say that he is wise or has understanding but that he is good-tempered or temperate; yet we praise the wise man also with respect to his state of mind; and of states of mind we call those which merit praise virtues” (Book 1 Chapter 13). “Virtue, then, being of two kinds, intellectual and moral, intellectual virtue in the main owes both its birth and its growth to teaching (for which reason it requires experience and time), while moral virtue comes about as a result of habit, whence also its name (ethike) is one that is formed by a slight variation from the word ethos (habit).

From this it is also plain that none of the moral virtues arises in us by nature; for nothing that exists by nature can form a habit contrary to its nature…Neither by nature, then, nor contrary to nature do the virtues arise in us; rather we are adapted by nature to receive them, and are made perfect by habit” (Book 2 Chapter 1). Now that we understand the role of virtue, let’s take a step back and describe what virtue itself is. “Since things that are found in the soul are of three kinds — passions, faculties, states of character — virtue must be one of these.

By passions I mean appetite, anger, fear, confidence, envy, joy, friendly feeling, hatred, longing, emulation, pity, and in general the feelings that are accompanied by pleasure or pain; by faculties the things in virtue of which we are said to be capable of feeling these, e. g. of becoming angry or being pained or feeling pity; by states of character the things in virtue of which we stand well or badly with reference to the passions, e. g. ith reference to anger we stand badly if we feel it violently or too weakly, and well if we feel it moderately; and similarly with reference to the other passions” (Book 2 Chapter 5). Virtue cannot be passions or faculties “ for we are neither called good nor bad, nor praised nor blamed, for the simple capacity of feeling the passions; again, we have the faculties by nature, but we are not made good or bad by nature; we have spoken of this before.

If, then, the virtues are neither passions nor faculties, all that remains is that they should be states of character” (Book 2 Chapter 5), therefore virtue is in respect to the states of character. “Now virtue is concerned with passions and actions, in which excess is a form of failure, and so is defect, while the intermediate is praised and is a form of success; and being praised and being successful are both characteristics of virtue. Therefore virtue is a kind of mean, since, as we have seen, it aims at what is intermediate” (Book 2 Chapter 6).

When Aristotle associates virtue with what he calls “the mean,” he defines virtue as the means between extremes. Extremes or Deficiencies harm a being. The more one achieves the mean, the better one would be at it. In the same sense, the more one attains virtue, the more virtuous he/she will become. As Aristotle states, “excess and defect are characteristic of vice, and the mean of virtue; For men are good in but one way, but bad in many” (Book 2 Chapter 6). However, “for in general there is neither a mean of excess and deficiency, nor excess and deficiency of a mean” (Book 2 Chapter 6).

Therefore, “Virtue, then, is a state of character concerned with choice, lying in a mean, this being determined by a rational principle, and by that principle by which the man of practical wisdom would determine it” (Book 2 Chapter 6). Stating that the “function of a human being” is an action in accordance to the part of the soul that has reason, and that virtue is a state of character in pertaining to choice which is determined by reason, one can see the correlation between the two.

By acting with reason, one can determine with good choice what good action to perform. By having a consistency in performing good actions, one is becoming virtuous. By becoming more and more virtuous, one will eventually acquire perfect virtue. By acquiring perfect virtue, one’s soul will attain happiness, the highest good for human beings. Therefore, the function of a human being is to attain happiness by acquiring perfect virtue by acting in accordance to the part of the soul that has reason.

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