Language of Ethics in Aristotle: Facets of Inexactness and Appearance (in Books One – Four). Part 2

In the first part of this article I have demonstrated how Aristoteles describes notions and categories connected with the field of morality and happiness.

For him, when distinct disciplines have their own specific aim, subject and method, then our way of speaking and writing in every branch of knowledge should be analogous with its pertinent complexity. Accordingly, if in Aristotle ethics has its own telos, subject-matter and method, then somehow these specifications should be shown and presented in his oral and written too.

In other words, indefiniteness has a meaningful connection with ethics and ethical language. Even though Aristotle mentions to the different facets of indefiniteness/ οὐκ ἀκριβῶς but he expresses the results with one word that is δοκεῖ / seeming. More precisely, Aristotle implicitly considers different aspects of inexactness such as lack of detail, being for the most part, being true for the most part, and deficiencies in demonstrative rigor. But it seems that he uses one word in Books One to Four in order to represent the results and it is the problem of this paper. Now with regard to the four features that are extensions of indefiniteness, I want to suggest four lingual English options for the one and only Greek word δοκεῖ / seeming that Aristotle uses.

  • Lack of details”, and seeming with the meaning of “general consideration”. In this relation, I want to suggest that in the Book II, 1117b Aristotle’s accounts of “courage” and “temperance”; and different kinds of pleasure and within it senses of touch and taste are without background details and as a result his account is very general and he himself is doubtful about them. From the beginning of the treatise, it is his presupposition that ethical virtues belong to the irrational part of human nature and here once again repeats this supposition as an apparent notion and passes quickly. Besides, when he wants to consider pleasures in order to explore and examine the temperate and profligate human beings, he cites and applies the usual distinction between pleasures of the soul and the body as an accepted idea without discussing them. And where Aristotle wants to consider the pleasures of touch and taste in relation to temperance and profligacy, he has short accounts about both of them, although according to his rationale they are the main terms of his discussion. Accordingly, these should be considered Aristotle general accounts about temperance and profligacy.


  • “Being true for the most part”, and seeming with a meaning of “mostly held well”. Another facet of inexactness and appearance is where Aristotle wants to mention to the result of a specific virtue/vice that a specific meaning of it is expected mostly. We can find such an issue in Book IV 1119b, 1121a about “prodigality”. For him, prodigality as an excess has three meanings: proper/usual; general /unusual; and short-term combination which includes giving-taking senses and uses. In the first sense, Prodigality denotes to a man who has one vice /a.swtoV, viz. that of wasting his substance that means wealth. In the second, it is used for a man who has a combination of vices. And in the last, for some time a combination of the two pertinent elements of prodigality coexist with each other. In the other words, if we take two elements for prodigality that are “giving” and “taking”, in its strict sense this vice exceeds in giving but falls short in taking (1121a). At the same time, it is possible that in young persons for a short time a combination of giving and taking coexist with each other but it is an exception. And lastly, sometimes it is possible that we use prodigality for a combination of vices. Therefore, we see that the vice of prodigality is not monolithic and it is divided into three unequal parts as follows:
  • Proper/limited and usual meaning of giving.
  • Combination of giving-taking for a limited period.
  • General/wide and unusual meaning as a combination of vices.

And by comparing these three parts, Aristotle thinks that the second combination seems much better than the illiberal vice and closer to the liberal man (1121a, in two places). His reasons for such a conclusion in the form of “it seems to be better” are as follows: he has not a bad character as he goes too far in giving, he has the essential quality of the liberal character that is giving; and he has the capacity of receiving training in order to come to moderation and a right course.

  • “Deficiencies in demonstrative rigor”, and seeming with the meaning of “it is the established and current opinion”. Sometimes for many reasons when Aristotle wants to discuss a specific virtue the demonstrative rigor is at a low level and this can have a different result for his overall argument about that specific virtue. Within the range of my paper, I will consider the case of honor/ ambition/ timoV at 1125b in Book IV.

In Aristotle, there are four different reasons that make it impossible to have a rigorous demonstration about “honor”:

  1. Quality of ambition or ambitious man, for good reasons, sometimes is praised, and sometimes is reproached. And for good reasons, we can repeat the same account in relation to unambitious man and quality. As a result, we can say that,
  2. There are various senses in which a man is said to be fond of a thing, and that the term fond of honor has not always the same sense, for sometimes it is praised and sometimes reproached. Consequently, we have the fighting and opposition of two extremes. Why is it so?
  3. Because the mean is not shaped and as a result has no name – for three times Aristotle repeats the absence of a name for the mean (1125b). And,
  4. If we compare honor with ambition we observe a strange state, for when comparing it with ambition, it seems unambitious; comparing it with unambitious it seems to be ambitious; and comparing it with both at once, it seems in a way to be both at once.

The overall result of these reasons in regard to honor makes it a minor and a trifle virtue in comparison with virtues such as courage, justice, high-mindedness and the like. Besides, the reader or student cannot figure out Aristotle normative guidance about this minor virtue and it seems better to refer to the general established beliefs of the classical Greek society.

Besides, Aristotle introduces a case at 1126a in which there are no recognized names for the “extremes” and the “mean”. Thus, we are faced with a strange category, and in general, he says that we want to speak about “anger”. On the one hand, he has hesitation about the proper names for expressing excess and deficiency of anger and calls up our contribution with these sentences “the excess may be called wrathfulness, ….”; and “call it wrathlessness or what you will ….” - in relation to deficiency (Book III, 1126a). And on the other hand, he emphasizes that defining the pertinent factors in relation to anger is not easy and they scarcely can be defined for it depends upon the particular circumstances of each case and can only be decided by immediate perception (1126b).

With regard to and as a result of such a situation, he reaches to a minimal and commonsensical conclusion that is, praising the habit that observes the mean; and censuring the habits of excess and deficiency.

  • Lastly, there is “being for the most part”, and seeming with the meaning of “mostly expected”. It seems that for Aristotle a normal social life includes “friendship” in social intercourse; “truthfulness” in the sayings and doings of the people toward each other; and “witness” in social amusements. In regard to “social intercourse”, Aristotle says that mostly in social relations people express and actualize two habits of pleasing and displeasing (1126b). And when he searches for the middle habit he says there is no specific name but mentions that we expect it resembles “friendship”. For when we speak of moderation in social intercourse we mean something that is analogous with and expectable of friendship, only with this exception that in society there is no place for affections and emotions (1126b).

Besides, in relation to “jest” as a kind of necessary social relaxation among people, he says that those who give prominence to ridiculous things call buffoon witty, but it is not right and there is a great difference between these two (1128a). It means that within a negative argument he says that although many jest-oriented people make a direct connection between being a buffoon and witty but we should not expect it to be right.

Author: Mostafa Younesie



Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, H. Rackham (Trans.), Loeb Classical Library edition 1962.

Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, F. H. Peters (Trans.), Barnes & Nobles 2004.

Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, Robert C. Bartlett & Susan D. Collins (Trans.), University of Chicago Press 2012.

J. A. Stewart, Notes on the Nicomachean Ethics of Aristotle, BiblioLife 2009.

John M. Tutuska, Aristotle’s Ethical Imprecision: Philosophic Method in the Nicomachean Ethics, Dallas University Press 2010.

Georgios Anagnostopoulos, Aristotle on Variation and Indefiniteness in Ethics and Its Subject Matter, Topoi 15:107-127, 1996.


Published 16.1.2018



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