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Many of us were raised to believe that virtue is the pinnacle of goodness. If you can climb high enough, morally speaking, you can reach the apex that is virtue. But is that what virtue really is? What is virtue?

What Is Virtue, Aristotle?

In his lengthy and comprehensive work The History of Philosophy, A. C. Grayling explicates Aristotle’s ideas on virtue. I found the ideas compelling, for reasons I will describe below. First, let’s see what Grayling writes about the ideas of the great ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle:

“A virtue is the middle path between opposing vices, one of deficiency and the other of excess. Thus courage is the middle path or ‘mean’ between cowardice (deficiency) and rashness (excess); generosity is the mean between meanness (deficiency) and profligacy (excess).”

If this is what virtue is, then we need not climb to the top of the mountain. We might wither from cold, hunger, and fear of heights at the top. Nor should we remain at the very bottom, where we might fall into a body of water and drown. No, let’s remain in the middle area, where the living conditions are just right.

What Is Virtue, Liza?

This Goldilocks view of ethics appeals to me because I have seen it, here on this blog. For more than three years, I have been seeking wisdom through books and elsewhere, and writing about my experiences on this blog. If I had to sum up what I have learned in this endeavor, it is just what Aristotle says: wisdom consists in striking a balance between the undesirable extremes. And I had drawn that conclusion long before I read Grayling’s book.

Thinking of personal characteristics as being on a continuum between extremes, and identifying the middle as the area of virtue, makes for a very different ethics of goodness than the one we may have been taught in Sunday school class or elsewhere during childhood. Indeed, there is less of an identifiable perfection in the gray area of the middle. There’s more room for error there; and there’s more of a requirement for careful and persistent thought.

But there’s also more room for the exciting expansiveness that is learning and wisdom. Again, I am pleasantly astonished by the insight of the ancients and how applicable it still is today.

A final note: The History of Philosophy is a great book, and I obviously can’t write about all of the philosophies within, from antiquity to the present. I didn’t even make it past the ancient Greeks! But I recommend the book to you if you’re looking to gain a thorough understanding of the history of a fascinating field that’s always bubbling up with new ideas.

What Is Virtue, Reader?

What virtues—or middle paths between extremes—do you possess?

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