Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.04.29 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.04.29

Howard J. Curzer, Aristotle and the Virtues.   Oxford; New York:  Oxford University Press, 2012.  Pp. 464.  ISBN 9780199693726.  $99.00.  

Reviewed by Cathal Woods, Virginia Wesleyan College (


This is a terrific book. It challenges many well-established readings of Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics (NE) and offers inventive re-interpretations in their places. There is insight on almost every page. But most of all, the Aristotle that emerges from Curzer's interpretation seems extraordinarily humane, and equally astute. In addition to showing how each of (ethical) virtues fleshes out and accords with the doctrines that comprise Aristotle's architectonic, Curzer spends much time on the various "failure modes" of each virtue and on the full range of character types (from brutish to heroically virtuous) and on how we develop from one to the next. As a result of Curzer's book we can read the NE not as a foundational but discarded source for a type of ethical framework — virtue ethics — but as a source of practical instruction in living well. Aristotle's ethics are the equal of any other system, and perhaps superior at least in detail and sensitivity to the interplay of feeling and thinking. A simpler version of Curzer’s book, without the footnotes and the several dialectical sections, would take pride of place amongst other guides to living.

The book's 18 chapters are distributed among three parts: nine of the ethical virtues each receive a chapter, there are then three chapters on justice and friendship, and the final five chapters concern moral development and the different types of character. Very many of the major debates in the contemporary literature are treated, such as the status of the doctrine of the mean, the relationship between courage and continence, the passion associated with justice, the varieties of friendship (72 if deviant forms are counted!), the reciprocity of the virtues, and the competition between contemplative and practical lives. Thus, despite its title and emphasis on the ethical virtues, the book is a more-or-less complete treatment of the NE.

Curzer is quite willing to convict Aristotle of various mistakes. Many, particularly those concerning the details of the ethical virtues, can be corrected with "a few tweaks" (p. 4), such as the addition of a duration parameter, borrowed from the account of good temper, to courage (p. 46), or five small corrections made to the account of temperance (p. 82), or adding a characteristic loss to liberality, namely the risk of running short of money (p. 105).

There are other, more significant, corrections or clarifications of Aristotle's thought. In particular, Aristotle seems to differentiate some virtues on the basis of scale (e.g. that magnificence is liberality concerning large amounts). Curzer thinks it implausible that liberality covers acquiring and distributing small amounts while great amounts are covered by magnificence or justice (p. 85). Magnificence is thus recast as exquisite liberality and liberality in extreme circumstances. The distinction between ordinary and what Curzer calls "heroic" virtue is nowhere found in the NE, Curzer admits (p. 115), but he insists on it so that liberality and magnificence fit the architectonic. Megalopsychia is (tentatively) changed in a similar fashion: while Aristotle's account of megalopsychia is for Curzer (as for everyone) a mess, it gives insight into a general account of heroically virtuous activity.

The decision to correct Aristotle in these major ways on the basis of "common sense" is a delicate one. As Curzer himself points out, how a theorist delimits the sphere of each virtue indicates what she thinks is important in ethical life. Aristotle, for example, does not distinguish among dispositions towards food, drink and sex, whereas nowadays we might disaggregate this trio of appetites on the basis of our struggles with one and not all of them. Aristotle, on the other hand, distinguishes three virtues related to honor, concerning one's ambition, one's self-knowledge of one's superior character, and truthfulness about one's character, thus indicating the importance of feelings and actions relating to social standing for Aristotle (p. 20).

Moreover, Curzer must in various instances resist what might constitute modern common sense in favor of keeping faith with the text. Liberality, for example, is not broadly 'the virtue concerned with wealth', as we might think, but is motivated by a desire to help others economically while avoiding the risk of depleting one's funds too greatly (p. 86, 93). The virtue concerns the financial tension between self and others, or as Curzer nicely puts it, between the heartstrings and the purse strings (p. 95). Or again, honesty is not a single virtue, as we might think, but is divided by Aristotle into different domains: honesty about self-presentation, honesty about distribution of scarce goods, honesty about agreements, and so on. And finally, not only courage but all of the virtues involve characteristic types of fear and confidence (p. 3, 22, 30, 37, 61, 347).

The goal of the first part of the work (which takes up half of it) is to show how the individual virtues are in accord with the architectonic. The doctrine of 'disjoint spheres' — that each virtue governs completely different objects or situations — is only one of the doctrines which make up the Aristotelian architectonic. The others are the doctrine of the mean (each virtue is bracketed by two vices), the parameter doctrine (each virtue is a disposition to get all of the relevant parameters right), of relativity to the situation, of the virtuous person as the measure, of motivation (each virtue has its characteristic gains and losses). In addition, there is for each virtue a right rule for feeling and action. Some of these doctrines are mentioned in connection with multiple virtues, some much less frequently. Curzer begins with courage in part because Aristotle’s discussion of courage mentions many of these doctrines, and he gradually builds up the complete set, filling in the architectonic for each virtue, even if a doctrine is not mentioned in the course of its discussion.

The core of the architectonic is the doctrine of the mean together with the parameter doctrine. Virtuous activity requires getting all the parameters right. Since each virtue has multiple parameters, we can fail in many ways (p. 43). These parameters and failure modes are as helpful as the depiction of the ideal in guiding moral development and giving advice (p. 247, 262). Each parameter can be described in terms of more or less, so that the doctrine of the mean, even though it does not specify the amount of each parameter, at least gives people advice as to what to increase or decrease in their reactions.

The motivation doctrine concerns the different sources of pain and pleasure related to each virtue. "No virtuous act is performed merely because it is virtuous", writes Curzer (p. 35); it has some characteristic good at which it aims and also a characteristic harm which it seeks to avoid, in addition to the pleasure of acting virtuously. While successful virtuous actions are overall pleasant, Curzer insists that activity is "not typically" (p. 13) pleasant and is overall painful (p. 327-331). This applies not just to learners but also to the virtuous. In defense of this claim, Curzer goes so far as to use as evidence the claim that even friendship "opens people up to much pain".

Curzer crosses the ten ethical virtues (magnificence and megalopsychia are excluded, but shame is included) with his 5-step account of character development (discussed below) to propose a "geeky virtue rating system" (p. 359), by use of which one can calculate one's virtue score, one point for each developmental step in each virtue, with a ten-point addition for full virtue, in accordance with Curzer's interpretation of the reciprocity of virtue.

The 'reciprocity of virtue' is the idea that a person with one virtue has them all, specifically because virtue requires practical wisdom and practical wisdom at once makes all of the virtues complete. Without it, a person has only 'natural virtue' and can be naturally virtuous in one respect without being so in others. Aristotle says that the person of natural virtue stumbles, like a strong body that lacks sight, which suggests that a natural virtue sometimes goes wrong. Curzer thinks it implausible to insist that a person cannot work out what the right action is in one sphere unless she knows what is right in all. Curzer thus reinterprets the thought that the person of natural virtue stumbles in terms of ability to resist temptation and other obstacles to right action. For Curzer, the difference between natural and proper virtue is (merely) knowledge of why certain actions are in accord with virtue. Knowing this consists in knowing that an act exhibits a certain trait and knowing that that trait is a virtue, and this latter requires knowing the trait is conducive to the happy life and what "all of the other virtues are" (p. 303, 316). Hence, the reciprocity of virtue.

In this picture, natural virtue is elevated from its typical status as a quality of some untrained agents to the penultimate state of moral development. Curzer's names for the people who inhabit each stage are as follows: the many, the generous-minded, the incontinent, the continent, the naturally virtuous, the properly virtuous. The move from being one of the many to one of the generous-minded is made by developing the desire to perform virtuous actions for their own sake; the desire to act well precedes the ability to identify virtuous acts (p. 323). It is only when habits of virtuous action and habits of virtuous passion are added that a person reaches natural virtue.

Just as controversially, Curzer argues that the first three steps are driven by various forms of pain. First there is the familiar fear of punishment. But in steps two and three it is shame and remorse (in the course of habituation) that move one to incontinent and then continent status, rather than the burgeoning pleasure of acting rightly. Indeed, Curzer is sure enough of his one-sided theory of development that he later criticizes Aristotle for omitting positive reinforcement as a tool (p. 364). And we are still not at natural virtue. Having elevated it to the penultimate step of development, Curzer feels the need to supply a mechanism for achieving it, and is forced to reach beyond the NE to Politics for musical culture.

Curzer's Aristotle sees moral development as the acquisition of various desires, knowledge and habits, in a series of ordered steps, such that various possible combinations of the elements of virtue are impossible (for example, virtuous passions and knowledge of the because cannot be learned simultaneously, p. 345) and the scattered elements that make up inverse continence (Himmler) and inverse incontinence (Huck Finn) are possible only by backsliding from natural virtue (p. 352 ff.). A theory of Aristotelian moral development must be pieced together from the various scraps found across the NE, but the approach suggested by Burnyeat has long held sway.1 The interpretation presented in Aristotle and the Virtues firmly reopens the issue.

Concerning the thorny question of whether the happiest life is one of contemplation alone or of this together with practical activity, Curzer attempts a synthesis of intellectualist and inclusivist accounts. He begins from the idea that there are two happy lives in book 10, the minimally happy and the supremely happy life. The supremely happy are those who lead a life of contemplation, and contemplation is the goal of their life, but the kind of contemplation in question is "primarily" (p. 401) reflection on practical activity rather than contemplation of scientific truths (p. 15, 393-4) and contemplation is "limited mostly by fortune and choice rather than by intellectual ability, education, and free time" (p. 401). A person might think both theoretically and practically about homelessness, for example.

Concerning the temporal extent of contemplation, Curzer describes his view as "reflection and concentration", where "reflection" means that a person can be doing other things at the same time. Emphasizing reflection over concentration is consistent with the statement that contemplation is our most continuous activity and allows Curzer to excuse Aristotle from the charge of elitism. On the other hand, it's not clear where Curzer's "primarily" leaves the study and contemplation of math and science. Are people who devote their lives to these at the expense of contemplation on "the matters of ordinary human life" not good?

In sum, this is a book to be thankful for. On the one hand, it's likely that everyone will find at least something to disagree with, either in Curzer's interpretation of Aristotle, or his criticism of existing scholarship, or in the way he balances common sense with textual and historical fidelity. This is testament to the wide range of the book and the depth of Curzer's insight. On the other, everyone, I think, will appreciate the revitalization of Aristotle's ethics as a practical guide to living. Aristotle and the Virtues provokes and inspires us to be not just better scholars but better people too.


1.   Myles Burnyeat, "Aristotle on Learning to be Good," in A. O. Rorty, ed., Essays on Aristotle's Ethics (University of California, 1980), p. 73-92.

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