Aristotle (i)

It is not correct to speak of modesty* as a kind of virtue, because it is more like a feeling than a state. It is defined, at any rate, as a sort of fear of disrepute, and it has an effect very like that produced by the fear of danger; modesty makes people blush, and the fear of death turns them pale. So both appear to be in some sense corporeal, and this is thought to be more the mark of a feeling than of a state. The feeling is not appropriate to every age: only to youth. We consider that adolescents ought to be modest because, living as they do under sway of their feelings, they often make mistakes, but are restrained by modesty. Also, we commend a modest youth, but nobody would commend an older man for being shamefaced, because we think that he ought not to do anything to be ashamed of. In fact shame is not the emotion of a good man, if it is felt for doing bad actions, because such actions ought not to be done (and it makes no difference whether the things done are really shameful or are only thought to be so; they should not be done in either case); so the emotion ought not to be felt. It is the bad man who ought to feel shame, because he is the sort of man to do a shameful deed; but it is absurd to think that being so constituted as to feel shame at doing something shameful makes you a good man, because modesty is felt about voluntary actions, and the good man will never voluntarily do bad ones.

Modesty can only be good in a conditional sense: that if the agent were to do so-and-so he would be ashamed; but this is not true of the virtues. Although shamelessness, that is, not being ashamed to do what is disgraceful, is a bad thing, it does not follow any the more from this that to be ashamed if one behaves disgracefully is a good thing. […]

*: aidõs

From Aristotle’s The Nicomachean Ethics, which I’m reading at the moment. What most people know about Aristotle’s teaching, if anything, is probably limited to his conclusion in book II: in all our conduct, it is the mean that is to be commended, but there’s a bit more to it than just that.


October 25, 2008 - Posted by | Books, ethics, Philosophy

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