Book 02
Chapter 02
Whether we get and keep virtue is based on what we do.

Now, we are not making this study in order to learn a nice theory, but rather to know what it is that we ought to practice. We do not just want to know what virtue is, we want to become good. Now, because we want to do things, we ought to look at the nature of action, so that we can then get a better sense for the actions we ought to be taking. Like we said, how our character turns out is based on what we do, what actions we take.

We can start out by saying that whatever we do, it has got to be in line with sound reasoning. What it means for something to be in line with sound reasoning, and how one can tell, is something we will get into at another time.

And we must say that any reasoning that is done about practical matters can only be done in outline and not in exact detail. Think about it like how it is with matters of health. A good doctor does not just follow a recipe and do the same thing for every patient. A good doctor has to examine each patient, and then decide what is best for that patient, based on various things about that patient. So it is with us and the actions that we take; we must look at what details we are presented with at the time when we have to make a decision.

We will not be setting down any recipes for how to be just or brave. We will know what to do when it comes time to do the thing and not before. We will work out what is to be done separately for each case based on the facts of that case.

Now although we cannot know what to do before it comes time to do it, it is not as though there is nothing we can learn in advance that will help us to work things out and make good decisions.

First, we can note that things are ruined by having too much or going too far (excess) and not having enough or falling short (deficiency). For instance, think about strength and health. If you exercise too much, you will end up becoming ill and you will lose your strength. This is going too far. You will also lose your strength if you exercise too little. This is falling short. Likewise, for health, if you eat and drink too much, you will ruin your health. But if you eat and drink too little, you will become malnourished and you will also ruin your health. It is like this with most any thing you can do. If you go too far then you ruin something, but you also ruin it by not going far enough.

We can see it is like this also with the virtues. Take courage, for instance. A person that never stands up against anything, but always runs away is a coward. They do not do enough, and their virtue is ruined by deficiency. A person that stands up against anything and everything, regardless of whether it is right or not, and never backs down no matter what the odds or how little is at stake -- such a person goes too far and has also ruined their courage, though it is by an excess. We do not call such a person courageous, but foolhardy or reckless. Or take a look at temperance as another example. A person that never says no to any pleasure, but says yes to anything that feels good -- such a person becomes self-indulgent. A person that never lets themselves enjoy anything in life, but is always saying they will not join us for a drink or any kind of fun, we call them, not temperate, but a boor. Both these kinds of people do not do what is right, and so they do not have the virtue of temperance. The virtues of temperance and courage are got and kept by hitting the mark in situations where temperate and courageous actions are called for, rather than overshooting (excess) or undershooting (deficiency).

What builds up character is the same as what character shows itself in. This is obvious in the case of strength. Strength is built up by lifting things, and strength is shown by lifting things. The more you lift things, the better you are able to lift things. It is the same with the virtues. The more you do things that are virtuous, the better able you are to do other things that are virtuous, including things that are harder (which is like lifting a heavier weight). We are less courageous or temperate before we get to be more so. When we are less so, how do we get to be more so? By trying and successfully doing things that are courageous or temperate, and then doing things that are harder and harder to do. It is like the case with strength and weights. We get stronger by successfully lifting weights and then we move on to heavier weights, etc. In the case of the courage, it is after standing up to less terrible and dangerous things that we will be able to stand up against more terrible and dangerous things.


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