Plato, Aristotle, and Augustine on Virtue, Vice, and the Human Will

In the Medieval World course I took last semester, one of my professors made a casual remark about comparing Augustine, Plato, and Aristotle’s understanding of virtue, vice, and the human will. Nothing more was said, but what little was said intrigued me, so I’ve put together the following brief examination of the subject. To me, this helps put flesh on Augustine’s stated desire to take what good can be taken from the pagans but not to take anything from them which does not accord with the Scriptures.:”(See Confessions VII.9; Against the Academics.)”:


In Book 4 of his Republic, Plato describes man’s soul as having two principles which the man must strive to master:

in the human soul there is a better and also a worse principle; and when the better has the worse under control, then a man is said to be master of himself; and this is a term of praise: but when, owing to evil education or association, the better principle, which is also the smaller, is overwhelmed by the greater mass of the worse – in this case he is blamed and is called the slave of self and unprincipled. (431a):”(Trans., Benjamin Jowett)”:

A bit further on, he divides the soul into three parts: reason, will, and emotion. (436b). As with Aristotle (below), Plato has reason making deliberations about what is best thing for a man to do to achieve his end (the Good). Will’s job is to carry out the dictates of reason. Last, emotion is that part of a man which wants many different things and with which the man’s reason must contend as it strives to determine what will should carry out. Ideally, reason should be allied with will to overcome emotion, which in all men is the largest and most unruly part of the soul:

And these two, thus nurtured and educated, and having learned truly to know their own functions, will rule over the concupiscent, which in each of us is the largest part of the soul and by nature most insatiable of gain; over this they will keep guard, lest, waxing great and strong with the fulness of bodily pleasures, as they are termed, the concupiscent soul, no longer confined to her own sphere, should attempt to enslave and rule those who are not her natural-born subjects, and overturn the whole life of man?

The goal for the man who would be wise is to have all three parts of his soul in rationally-ordered harmony:

he sets in order his own inner life, and is his own master and his own law, and at peace with himself; and when he has bound together the three principles within him, which may be compared to the higher, lower, and middle notes of the scale, and the intermediate intervals – when he has bound all these together, and is no longer many, but has become one entirely temperate and perfectly adjusted nature, then he proceeds to act, if he has to act…always thinking and calling that which preserves and co-operates with this harmonious condition, just and good action, and the knowledge which presides over it, wisdom, and that which at any time impairs this condition, he will call unjust action, and the opinion which presides over it ignorance. (443d-e)

In the Phaedrus, Plato expands this characterization with the metaphor of a chariot drawn by two winged horses. One horse is good (“a lover of honour and modesty and temperance, and the associate of right opinion”), and the other is bad (“the mate of insolence and pride, shag-eared and deaf, hardly yielding to whip and spur”). The charioteer, who himself wants to see the pure vision of truth and beauty above the material world into which he has fallen, has to constantly struggle to manage the differing impulses of these steeds so as to keep his sight on the goal. The bad steed, mired in the corruptible, sees the pure truth and beauty and rushes madly toward it, but the good steed prefers to patiently and modestly stay their present course (246-253).

However, when they actually do see “the flashing beauty of the beloved,” the charioteer “is afraid, and falls backwards in adoration, and by his fall is compelled to pull back the reins with such violence as to bring both the steeds on their haunches, the one willing and unresisting, the unruly one very unwilling.” Eventually, if the charioteer is successful in taming the bad horse, “from that time forward the soul of the lover follows the beloved in modesty and holy fear.” (254). Still, even this does not fully tame the bad steed, for when the bad steed of the lover meets the bad steed of the beloved, it often happens that sensual pleasure (which I take to mean all manner of material delights) distracts the soul (255-256). The charioteer and the good horse “oppose [the bad horse] with arguments of shame and reason,” but whether or not these succeed is the condition of whether the soul obtains and retains happiness:

After this their happiness depends upon their self-control; if the better elements of the mind which lead to order and philosophy prevail, then they pass their life here in happiness and harmony – masters of themselves and orderly – enslaving the vicious and emancipating the virtuous elements of the soul…nor can human discipline or divine inspiration confer any greater blessing on man than this (256).


In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle teaches that there are three kinds of things in the soul: passions, faculties, and states of character. Virtue, he says, cannot be a passion, for “we are not called good or bad on the ground of our passions, but are so called on the ground of our virtues and our vices” (1105b20 – 1106a1). :”(Trans. W.D. Ross, in The Basic Works of Aristotle, ed. Richard McKeon [New York: The Modern Library, 2001], pp. 956-957.)”: Likewise, virtue cannot be a faculty, for a faculty is merely the capacity for feeling a passion, and “we are neither called good nor bad, nor praised nor blamed, for the simple capacity of feeling the passions.” Therefore, he concludes, virtue must be a state of character (1106a3-11).:”(Ibid., pg. 957.)”:

He then inquires as to the nature of a state of character. Just as “the excellence of the eye makes both the eye and its work good” and “the excellence of the horse makes a horse both good in itself and good at running and at carrying its rider and at awaiting the attack of the enemy,” the state of character that we call virtue is that “which makes a man good and which makes him do his own work well” (1106a14-24).:”(Ibid., pg. 957.)”: This leads Aristotle to formulate his famous “Doctrine of the Mean,” which says that “virtue is a state of character concerned with choice, lying in a mean, i.e., the mean relative to us, this being determined by a rational principle, and by that principle by which the man of practical wisdom would determine it” (1107a1-3).:”(Ibid., pg. 959.)”:

For Aristotle, achieving the “state of virtue” is a matter of rationally evaluating one’s available choices, of using “practical wisdom” to determine as virtue whichever course aims best at the Good, which is determined by reason. However, this is not an easy process: “For in everything it is nto easy task to find the middle…wherefore goodness is both rare and laudable and noble” (1109a25, 29).:”(Ibid., pg. 963.)”: The way to avoid extremes of character and to find the intermediate state of virtue is “to drag ourselves away to the contrary extreme; for we shall get into the intermediate state by drawing well away from error, as people do in straightening sticks that are bent” (1109b1-6).:”(Ibid.)”:

Aristotle’s understanding of the operation of the will in achieving the state of virtue. Wicked men are wicked because they are ignorant of what they ought to do and ought not to do, “and it is by reason of error of this sort that men become unjust and in general bad” (1110b27).:”(Ibid., pg. 966.)”: Choices of the will depend upon rational deliberation (1112a15).:”(Ibid., pg. 969.)”: Rational deliberation is about means, not ends:”(Ibid., pg. 970.)”: – that is, the means needed to achieve the end of “the good” (1113a15-20). However, each state of character has its own concept of what “the good” end is, and this is often related to what brings pleasure (1113a30 – 1113b1).:”(Ibid., pg. 971.)”: It follows that both virtue and vice are within our power to choose (1113b5), and that, furthermore, a man is personally responsible for whether he has a good or a bad character:

But perhaps a man is the kind of man not to take care. Still they are themselves by their slack lives responsible for becoming men of that kind, and men make themselves responsible for being unjust or self-indulgent, in the one case by cheating and in the other by spending their time in drinking bouts and the like; for it is activities exercised on particular objects that make the corresponding character.(1114a1-10).:”(Ibid., pp. 972-973.)”:

Interestingly, Aristotle holds that it is not possible for a man, having voluntarily chosen a negative state of character, to overcome it:

…if without being ignorant a man does the things which will make him unjust, he will be unjust voluntarily. Yet it does not follow that if he wishes he will cease to be unjust and will be just. For neither does the man who is ill become well on those terms. We may suppose a case in which he is ill voluntarily, through living incontinently and disobeying his doctors. In that case it was then open to him not to be ill, but not now, when he has thrown away his chance, just as when you have let a stone go it is too late to recover it; but yet it was in your power to throw it, since the moving principle was in you. So, too, to the unjust and to the self-indulgent man it was open at the beginning not to become men of this kind, and so they are unjust and self-indulgent voluntarily; but now that they have become so it is not possible for them not to be so (1114a13-22).:”(Ibid., pg. 973.)”:

Aristotle seems to have pegged at least this aspect of the problem of sin precisely, but having gotten that far he fails to find the solution in supernatural redemption. This may remind the reader of Augustine’s understanding of man’s sin: before the Fall man was “able to sin” (posse peccare); after the Fall he was “not able not to sin” (non posse non peccare). With this connection made, I turn to Augustine’s view of virtue, vice, and the will.


Augustine’s take on virtue and the operations of the will is in some respects similar to Plato’s and Aristotle’s. However, since he also engages in deep contemplation of the Scriptures, he ends up charting a different course than his Greek predecessors. Although Augustine wrote much on the will in several works, in this paper I will be dealing only with portions of the Confessions and the City of God. In Confessions VIII.5.10, Augustine say that he, wishing to imitate the godly example of Victorinus, he could not, for

…[I was] bound, not with the irons of another, but with my own iron will. My will was the enemy master of, and thence had made a chain for me and bound me. Because of a perverse will was lust made; and lust indulged in became custom; and custom not resisted became necessity…But that new will which had begun to develope in me, freely to worship Thee, and to wish to enjoy Thee, O God, the only sure enjoyment, was not able as yet to overcome my former wilfulness, made strong by long indulgence. Thus did my two wills, one old and the other new, one carnal, the other spiritual, contend within me; and by their discord they unstrung my soul.:”(Trans. J.G. Pilkington, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, Vol. 1 [Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, fourth printing, 2004], pp. 120-121.)”:

Here it seems are echoes of both Plato and Aristotle: the former in the image of a soul “unstrung” by the discord of its parts; the latter in the concept of a state of character which, through indulgence has become inescapable. Here Augustine does not cite either philosopher: his purpose is devotional and so he cites Scripture instead. “The flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh” (Gal. 5:17). The “I” who both does and does not want to do what God wills, and can only be delivered by God’s grace (Rom. 7). It seems an interesting choice of words when Augustine says that “the law of sin is the violence of custom whereby the mind is drawn and held, even against its will; deserving to be so held in that it so willingly falls into it.”:”(Ibid., pg. 121.)”: Again, Aristotle’s state of character seems in the background, here in the aspect of its being a willful choice that ends up taking the will captive in such a way that the man who has ruined his character cannot blame anyone else.:”(Though, of course, in Aristotle the ruination of character is a matter of vice, not sin.)”:

Moving on to Confessions VIII.8.19-20, Augustine seems to portray the violent conflict of the aspects of the soul that we saw above in Plato’s Phaedrus, where the charioteer literally has to whip the winged steeds into shape so that they will folllow after the Good. Describing his furious bodily motions in light of the conflict within his soul, Augustine writes, “in such things the power was one with the will, and to will was to do, and yet it was not done; and more readily did the body obey the slightest wish of the soul in the moving its limbs at the order of the mind than the soul obeyed itself to accomplish in the will alone this great will.” This is the “monstrous” state of affairs in which “the mind commands the mind to will, and yet, though it be itself, it obeyeth not,” and so “there are two wills, because one of them is not entire…” (VIII.9.21).:”(Ibid., pg. 125.)”:

Augustine then remarks on certain people who are “desiring to be light, not ‘in the Lord,’ but in themselves, conceiving the nature of the soul to be the same as that which God is.” This may be a reference to the Manichees, but on the other hand it sounds like Aristotle’s doctrine of reason being the divine in man.:”(“If reason is divine, then, in comparison with man, the life according to it is divine in comparison with human life…[we must] so far as we can, make ourselves immortal, and strain every nerve to live in accordance with the best thing in us [reason].” – Nicomachean Ethics 1177b19-1178a1.)”: If Augustine is here referring to Aristotle (and Plato as well), it is all the more interesting that just a few sentences later he denies that there is one good will and one bad in man. Rather, “both are bad” and the one soul fluctuates between them (Confessions VIII.9.23). Moreover, “when above eternity delights us, and the pleasure of temporal good holds us down below, it is the same soul which willeth not that or this with an entire will, and is therefore torn asunder with grievous perplexities, while out of truth it prefers that, but out of custom forebears not this” (VIII.9.24).

Although Augustine frames his discussion of these matters within a thought matrix of Platonic and Aristotelian categories, he is a Christian and so his final answer is Christian. In Confessions IX.1.1 we find the beautiful truth of freedom of the will in Christ: “…Thou, O Lord, art good and merciful, and Thy right hand had respect unto the profoundness of my death, and removed from the bottom of my heart that abyss of corruption. And this was the result, that I willed not to do what I willed, and willed to do what Thou willedst.”

Since Augustine is explicating biblical truth in the context of the thought of prominent non-Christian philosophers, we may ask, in closing, what is his view of the virtues sought so highly by Plato, Aristotle, and all the rest of the best Greeks and Romans? In City of God XIX.25, Augustine says that the traditional Roman virtues, celebrated as the highest good by Roman moralists for centuries, are not really virtues at all because they are not ordered toward the end of pleasing God. The pagans consider their virtues an end unto themselves, and so “although some suppose that virtues which have a reference only to themselves, and are desired only on their own account, are yet true and genuine virtues, the fact is that even then they are inflated with pride, and are therefore to be reckoned vices rather than virtues.” Pagan virtues are like the works of the Pharisees of which Christ spoke in Matthew 6:2 – aiming at a false end, the praise of men, those who so valiantly pursued virtue apart from the proper end of the praise of God “have received their reward,” the praise of other men (City of God V.15).

Nevertheless, the virtuous pagans can serve a helpful purpose for Christians, whose lives are ordered toward the true God, and therefore, the true Good:

Wherefore, through that empire, so extensive and of so long continuance, so illustrious and glorious also through the virtues of such great men, the reward which they sought was rendered to their earnest aspirations, and also examples are set before us, containing necessary admonition, in order that we may be stung with shame if we shall see that we have not held fast those virtues for the sake of the most glorious city of God, which are, in whatever way, resembled by those virtues which they held fast for the sake of the glory of a terrestrial city, and that, too, if we shall feel conscious that we have held them fast, we may not be lifted up with pride, because, as the apostle says, “The sufferings of the present time are not worthy to be compared to the glory which shall be revealed in us.” [Romans 8:18] (City of God V.18)

As with a number of other examples I’ve written about in recent months, here we see a Christian profitably using the categories of the surrounding culture to explicate biblical truths, yet without compromising those truths. Augustine is no slavish Hellenist, binding Scripture up to “Greek thought;” rather, he takes what is good in Greek thought, sifts it from what is bad, and produces a magnificent piece of biblical-theological rhetoric. Because “the wealth of the sinner is laid up for the just” (Prov. 13:22), Augustine can fearlessly engage the best of the unbelieving world, and, like the Israelites delivered from the bondage of Egypt, spoil their own captors.

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