Aristotle theorizes that virtues like courage are the average or mean of two vices such as cowardice and foolhardiness.

Are there any competing theories of virtue which explicitly reject virtues as being between two vices?

  • I've upvoted Jo's answer here, but what evidence do you have for suggesting that Aristotle defines virtue as the mean between two vices? (I believe I know the passage you may think supports that, but you may wish to reread it to see if that's how Aristotle defines virtue).
    – virmaior
    Commented Dec 22, 2015 at 1:02

3 Answers 3


The Greek word for virtue is arete.

It is already used by Homer and applied to the heroes figthing at Troia but also to women.

Socrates in Plato's early dialogues asks experts for a definition of special virtues, e.g., he asked Laches, a general, what courage ist.

Plato who was the teacher of Aristotle explicitely named the four virtues Prudence, Justice, Fortitude = Courage, and Temperance as fundamental virtues.

But Aristotle was the first who gave a definition of virtue in general. His definition from Nicomachean Ethics (EN II,1f) of virtue as a mean between negative extemes fits to many virtues, but not to all, e.g. not to justice. Indeed, Aristotle himself gave two different defitions for justice, see EN V, 3-5.

Later philosophers abanoned the search for a general definition and returned to focus on separate virtues. Christian faith complemented the four cardinal virtues named above by the three maior Christian virtues: Faith, hope and love. Thomas Aquinas made a systematic study of all 7 virtues.

Hence many philosophers do not consider virtues according to the general definition of Aristotle. For an introduction to the whole subject see


St. Thomas Aquinas, in Summa Theologica I-II q. 64 a. 2, gives the following objections against "whether moral virtue observes the mean:"

  1. It would seem that the mean of moral virtue is not the rational mean, but the real mean. For the good of moral virtue consists in its observing the mean. Now, good, as stated in Metaph. ii, text. 8, is in things themselves. Therefore the mean of moral virtue is a real mean.
  2. Further, the reason is a power of apprehension. But moral virtue does not observe a mean between apprehensions, but rather a mean between operations or passions. Therefore the mean of moral virtue is not the rational, but the real mean.
  3. Further, a mean that is observed according to arithmetical or geometrical proportion is a real mean. Now such is the mean of justice, as stated in Ethic. v, 3. Therefore the mean of moral virtue is not the rational, but the real mean.

And the sed contra:

The Philosopher [Aristotle] says (Ethic. ii, 6) that "moral virtue observes the mean fixed, in our regard, by reason."


As Jo Wehler notes, there are many other approaches to morality, values, ethics, and "virtues," in the modern colloquial sense.

Perhaps the main distinction would be between Aristotle's view, which might today be called "holistic," and the more absolutist concepts of sins and "virtues" under monotheism.

The latter introduces such ideas as eternity and infinite, linear time. On such a Augustinian scale, there are acts or virtues which cannot be excessive. One cannot love God "too much" or be "excessively" merciful.

This brings with it the problems of "purity" and "purification," which are discussed by Derrida among others... our drive to get to the "true" or "essential" form. We may err in seeing too many issues in essentialist, linear terms rather than dialectically.

Note: I see from a prior question that "virtue" is perhaps being used here in a more restricted sense. This post may be irrelevant, but I will leave it for whatever accidental value it may contain.

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