Aristotelian virtues

Recently, I had the pleasure of spending two days with Acumen’s class of 2014 Global Fellows.  These Fellows, a group of truly outstanding individuals from around the world who are committed to social change in the developing world, spend two months with Acumen training in New York before working for nine months with Acumen’s companies in India, Pakistan, East and West Africa.  While at their placements, they do things like run the sesame business for Gulu, a company serving more than 40,000 smallholder farmers in post-conflict Northern Uganda; or helping d.Light expand its solar lighting business in Nigeria.

One of the foundational elements of the Fellows’ training is the Good Society readings.  Based on the work of the Aspen Institute, the goal of these sessions is to give Acumen Fellows – who have committed to a life of social change work – the opportunity to take a step back and reflect on the moral and philosophical traditions that they are a part of.  Questions like: what is your view of human nature? How do you feel about tradeoffs between equality and efficiency?  How do we build a good and just society?

These are heavy readings, and the Fellows did amazing work grappling with the likes of Hobbes and Rousseau, and Plato.  They had heated discussions about the worldviews of Aung San Suu Kyi and Lee Kuan Yew, building upon a deep conversation of the impact and value of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, written just after World War II.  They dissected the masterful use of rhetoric and the display of moral imagination in Martin Luther King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail, by far one the most inspiring pieces of writing I’ve ever studied.

Near the end of the two days, we took up a discussion on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, a piece I had never read.  As I waded through the difficult, mostly obtuse 2,000-year-old writing, I came across a passage that summarizes more clearly than I could one of the main underpinnings of my worldview:

The virtues we get by first exercising them, as also happens in the case of the arts as well.  For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them, e.g. men become builders by building and lyre-players by playing the lyre; so too we become just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate acts, brave by doing brave acts.

–          Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Book I, Ch. 1

What Aristotle understood, two millennia, ago is that it is the actions we take that define and build our character, not the other way around.  This is the reason for a sustained practice of generosity, of humility, of audacity.  This is why being kind in small ways opens our hearts to others in big ways, why taking care to be our best selves in each interaction can transform us over a period of months and years.  It is why reflection around our core values combined with deliberate cultivation of behaviors and habits that we cherish can lead to profound change.

“We become just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate acts, brave by doing brave acts.”  Indeed we do, and it through deliberate practice that we become the people we aspire to be.  And while it may be the case that our greatest heroes were born different from the rest of us, it may also be that they started practicing just or brave or temperate acts early on, and stuck with it for a lifetime.

You can too.

One thought on “Aristotelian virtues

  1. It’s also worth mentioning that Aristotle felt that those who practice the virtues take great pleasure in their exercise. So, not only are your future leaders preparing to help the world, they are charting the course for their own best life as well. They doubtless recognize this, but Aristotle helps explain why. Great post!

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