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Ancient PhilosophyAristotle

Aristotle in the Nicomachean Ethics (350 B.C.E.), like Plato in the Republic, makes knowledge or understanding central to his conception of what is good for us as human beings. He also sees the virtues as expressing knowledge or understanding in action and in a life. But the kind of knowledge he takes to be involved in the virtues and how exactly he sees the virtues give expression to them are very different from what Plato thought.

Happiness for Aristotle consists primarily in the contemplation of the eternal truths of mathematics, physics, and theology. But practical wisdom, which is deployed in living a life well, is a separate intellectual virtue for Aristotle, and the virtues of character are closely connected with it. In the case of justice, Plato thinks that I will not take what is yours because, given my compelling interest in intellectual activities, I am no longer interested in what is yours. Arguably, this is not to take you and your rights as a person seriously. Aristotle's account of justice is a useful corrective. To be just requires not that I am uninterested in what is yours, but that I am disinterested or impartial; I see what is yours as yours and what is mine as mine.

I can achieve this perspective in matters of justice, Aristotle thinks, if I assume the perspective of a judge who sees us as free and equal citizens, each with his own interests and entitlements, and decides matters between us accordingly. And if I achieve this perspective, I will behave justly toward you. Thus being just requires that I understand what it is to be a citizen on a par with other citizens and to act from that perspective. So too with the other virtues: each involves correctly understanding the area of human reality appropriate to it and embodying that understanding in our actions and passions.

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Philosophy of Mind - Early Ideas to Planck lengthMoral - Ancient Philosophy - Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Hellenistic Theories, Bibliography