It was natural for a Greek speaker of Aristotle’s time to call these traits, which make a thing do its work well, the ‘‘virtues’’ of a thing of that sort.The relevant Greek word is arete, which means broadly any sort of excellence or distinctive power. In Aristotle’s time, the term would be applied freely to instruments, natural substances, and domestic animals – not simply to human beings. If you were going into battle, for instance, you would seek a horse with ‘‘virtue,’’ in order to draw a chariot that had ‘‘virtue,’’ made of materials that had the relevant ‘‘virtues.’’ The term connoted strength and success, as also did the Latin term virtus. Our English word, too, in its origin had similar connotations. Something of this original significance is still preserved in such idioms as ‘‘in virtue of’’: ‘‘The knife cuts in virtue of its sharpness.Because the Greek, arete, could be applied in this wide-ranging way but it is no longer natural to use our word ‘‘virtue’’ in this way, some commentators recommend that arete ¯ be translated instead as ‘‘excellence.’’ The term ‘‘excellence’’ makes it clear at once that arete ¯ is not a specifically moral term, and that it has something to do with distinction and special achievement. Yet it could be said, as against this, that it is likewise unnatural for us to use ‘‘excellence’’ to refer to such traits as generosity and justice. And, as I said, the English term ‘‘virtue’’ is not lacking in suggestions of strength and power. My own view is that it is better to try to reclaim the word ‘‘virtue,’’ restoring it in part to its earlier meaning, by deliberately retaining the word in discussions of Greek ethics – keeping in mind all along what the term actually means.
we do not blush to translate arete as "virtue" in all its appearances, despite the fact that it is easy in Greek to speak of the arete of an eye or a horse and despite the somewhat stodgy, perhaps even slightly Victorian, sound of virtue.Arete, one can say provisionally, "both brings that of which it is the arete into a good condition and causes the work belonging to that thing to be done well"; it is the chief characteristic of a given type of thing at its peak that also permits or promotes that peak. When Aristotle speaks of the arete of a human being, then, be it in action or in thinking, he does not have in mind the idiosyncratic, let alone relativistic, excellence ("flourishing") peculiar to this or that individual. To the contrary, Aristotle argues that there are eleven and only eleven moral aretai character- istic of human beings who act as they ought to act; those human beings with the aretai are "serious"; those without them, "base" or "corrupt" or even "wicked." Hence virtue.
in his dialogue Protagoras Plato puts into the mouth of Protagoras an excellent defense of the view that the young can be given a good moral and political education just as they can be given a good education in mathematics, and the only way Socrates can attack it is in terms of his own theory that ‘virtue is knowledge’. But the only philosophers who have ever attempted to defend this extravagant view were Socrates and Plato themselves; its weaknesses were rapidly pointed out by Aristotle, with his careful distinction, in the Nicomachean Ethics, between moral and intellectual virtues, and it has never seemed convincing since.It should, however, be pointed out that the claim seems much less extravagant once it is made clear that arete was heard by Greeks as an ‘efficiency’ word as well as a word for ‘virtue’, and that epistasthai served frequently to indicate knowledge ‘how’. In a word, efficiency in the sphere of action is know-how in the sphere of action (and who would ever deny that efficiency is or involves know-how?).
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