We are the sum of our actions, Aristotle tells us, and therefore our habits make all the difference. Moral virtue, we learn in this discussion from the Nicomachean Ethics, comes with practice, just like the mastery of any art or mechanical skill. And what is the best way to practice? Aristotle's answer lies in his explanation of "the mean." In his view, correct moral behavior in any given situation lies at the midway point between the extremes of two vices. We must practice hitting the mean by determining which vice we tend toward and then consciously moving toward the other extreme, until we reach the middle.
From the Nicomachean Ethics
"Virtue, then, is of two kinds, intellectual and moral. Intellectual virtue springs from and grows from teaching, and therefore needs experience and time. Moral virtues come from habit. . . . They are in us neither by nature, nor in despite of nature, but we are furnished by nature with a capacity for receiving them, and we develop them through habit. . . . These virtues we acquire by first exercising them, as in the case of other arts. Whatever we learn to do, we learn by actually doing it: men come to be builders, for instance, by building, and harp players, by playing the harp. In the same way, by doing just acts we come to be just; by doing self-controlled acts, we come to be self-controlled; and by doing brave acts, we become brave. . . .
"How we act in our relations with other people makes us just or unjust. How we face dangerous situations, either accustoming ourselves to fear or confidence, makes us brave or cowardly. Occasions of lust and anger are similar: some people become self-controlled and patient from their conduct in such situations, and others uncontrolled and passionate. In a word, then, activities produce similar dispositions. Therefore we must give a certain character to our activities. . . . In short, the habits we form from childhood make no small difference, but rather they make all the difference.
"Moral virtue is a mean that lies between two vices, one of excess and the other of deficiency, and . . . it aims at hitting the mean both in feelings and actions. So it is hard to be good, for surely it is hard in each instance to find the mean, just as it is difficult to find the center of a circle. It is easy to get angry or to spend money--anyone can do that. But to act the right way toward the right person, in due proportion, at the right time, for the right reason, and in the right manner--this is not easy, and not everyone can do it.
"Therefore he who aims at the mean should make it his first care to keep away from that extreme which is more contrary than the other to the mean. . . . For one of the two extremes is always more erroneous than the other. And since hitting the mean exactly is difficult, one must take the next best course, and choose the least of the evils as the safest plan. . . .
"We should also take notice of the errors into which we naturally tend to fall. They vary in each individual's case, and we will discover ours by the pleasure or pain they give us. Having discovered our errors, we must force ourselves off in the opposite direction. For we shall arrive at the mean by moving away from our failing, just as if we were straightening a bent piece of wood. But in all cases we should guard most carefully against what is pleasant, and pleasure itself, because we are not impartial judges of it. . . .
"This much, then, is plain: in all our conduct, the mean is the most praiseworthy state. But as a practical matter, we must sometimes aim a bit toward excess and sometimes toward deficiency, because this will be the easiest way of hitting the mean, that is, what is right.
William J. Bennett (1993). The Book of Virtues: A Treasury of Great Moral Stories. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Virtuous and Vicious Types
CliffsNotes::Aristotle's Ethics - Book II Summaries: Chapter IX: How to Find the Mean
The Nicomachean Approach to Ethics: The Argument of Ethics I and II
The Internet Classics Archive | Nicomachean Ethics by Aristotle: Book II