In his text, The Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle (c. 384-322 BCE) created a system of moral behavior that is known as Virtue Ethics. He wrote that achieving a virtuous lifestyle takes time and practice—virtue, for him, was not something you were born with, but rather it was a proper state of mind and action that a person must impose on themselves. He warned that many people would find it difficult to live by a code of virtue. Nevertheless, he also promised that those who persisted in trying to live virtuously would eventually find themselves practicing virtue by habit.
Interestingly, The Nicomachean Ethics reads almost like a Buddhist text, as Aristotle constantly instructs his readers to take a middle path. All of Aristotle’s virtues are on the middle ground between two extremes of a human trait. In the modern world, many people consider modesty and humility to be virtues. Yet, for Aristotle, these were actually extreme behaviors that should be avoided by a virtuous person.
Aristotle highly prized the virtues of sincerity and truthfulness. For him, modesty and humility were actually produced by a deficiency of sincerity. He believed that claiming your worth and importance as being less than what is true did not meet the criteria of sincerity and, therefore, was not a virtuous act. In fact, Aristotle wrote that modest and humble behavior was only appropriate for children. The other extreme on the excessive side of sincerity was boastfulness or arrogance. So, instead of being humble and understating your abilities, or being boastful and overstating your abilities, Aristotle would suggest that you take the middle path and simply be sincere about yourself.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (Marble 2nd century portrait of Aristotle (housed in the Museo Nazionale Romano) in front of a painting of Plato’s Academy by Raphael (1483–1520), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The Nicomachean Ethics (Bekker number 1128b) by Aristotle, translated by J. A. K. Thomson (Penguin Classics, 2004).