Summary and Analysis
Book IV: Analysis for Book IV
In this book Aristotle continues with an account of the virtues which are exemplified in the good life. It is indeed a remarkable conception of human character which he describes and one that presents the Greek ideal at its very best. The virtues enumerated in this part of the Ethics like the two that were discussed in the previous book are concrete illustrations of the doctrine of the golden mean. An important characteristic of the Aristotelian ethics is the fact that it does not specify a list of activities that are condemned or approved in any amount or without regard to the circumstances involved in particular cases. Instead, the moral quality of actions is relative to the individual and the situation in which he finds himself. What is proper and right for one person in a given set of circumstances may be quite different from what another person should do even though the circumstances are similar in several respects. Each case must be decided on its own merits. This does not mean that Aristotle subscribes to the type of relativism in which each person is free to decide the issue that arises in any manner which may suit his fancy at the moment. There are guide lines for each person to follow in order that he may make the right decision. The choice must be directed by reason rather than by one's feelings or the desire to obtain that which is pleasant. The function of reason is to determine the proper amount which in view of all the circumstances will promote the most complete and harmonious development of one's personality.
The good man, according to Aristotle, will be generous. He will give freely of both his time and his money in order to help those who are in need. In doing so, however, he will be careful to avoid both the excess of giving too much and the deficiency of not giving enough. Generosity is something that needs to be exercised with discretion if it is to promote one's own good as well as that of others. Miserliness is harmful to the soul and the same is true of dispensing of one's possessions in a thriftless manner. In meeting the needs of others the amount of one's generosity should be governed not only by his ability to give but also by the amount that will be in harmony with the long range interests of the ones who are being helped. There are situations of distress in which much help is needed at once, and there are other situations in which too much aid will rob the persons of the initiative to help themselves. Wisdom is needed in these matters and the good man will follow the guidance of reason.
The good life is characterized still further by what Aristotle calls magnificence and along with this high-mindedness. Both of these virtues refer to the attitude which one displays in the use of his time and his possessions. Magnificence in one's giving means that one will respond to needs which are comparatively small and attract little or no attention as well as donating to public causes which will be observed by the masses of people. In no case will the giving be done just for the sake of the honor which comes from it. The high-minded person will be deserving of honor and respect but he will avoid vanity and claiming great things for himself. He will not seek praise and recognition from others but neither will he accept slander and defamation without appropriate retaliation. His ambition will be to exemplify the good life in the society of which he is a part. He will accept honors when they are truly deserved but he will be concerned to see that they are bestowed in the right amount.
As a member of society the man who lives up to the Aristotelian ideal will cultivate a gentle disposition. He will be kind and considerate in his dealings with others. He will rejoice in their successes as well as in his own. He will avoid violent displays of temper even though he will have occasions to become angry. As a wise and prudent person he will know when anger is appropriate and he will always be able to keep it under proper control. He will not give vent to his feelings just because he encounters difficulties but
he will endeavor to meet each new situation with courage and good judgment. He will place a high value on friendship knowing that a relationship of this kind will be of mutual benefit to himself and his friends. Naturally he will be anxious to cultivate friendship with persons who possess admirable qualities but the basis of friendship will not be confined to the advantages which he gains for himself. He will contribute to others as well as receive from them. He will not forsake his friends because they are in need. The only thing that will destroy friendship is that which is destructive of the proper development of personality. Above all else the good man will be one who maintains an attitude of modesty as well as honesty in the matter of his own achievements. He will be ambitious in the sense that he makes the best use of his opportunities but he will not boast of his own goodness nor exaggerate in telling of his accomplishments. He will endeavor to live in a manner that will give no cause for him to be ashamed of what he has done nor to claim for himself more than what rightfully belongs to him.