Virtue Habituation and the Skill of Emotion Regulation

In Tom Angier & Lisa Raphals (eds.), Skill in Ancient Ethics: The Legacy of China, Greece and Rome. Bloomsbury Academic (forthcoming)
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In Nicomachean Ethics 2.1, Aristotle draws a now familiar analogy between aretai ('virtues') and technai ('skills'). The apparent basis of this comparison is that both virtue and skill are developed through practice and repetition, specifically by the learner performing the same kinds of actions as the expert: in other words, we become virtuous by performing virtuous actions. Aristotle’s claim that “like states arise from like activities” has led some philosophers to challenge the virtue-skill analogy. In particular, Aristotle’s skill analogy is sometimes dismissed because of the role that practical wisdom or phronesis purportedly plays in character virtue. In this paper, I argue that a proper understanding of character virtue, phantasia-based emotions, and Aristotle’s implicit distinction between habituated and strict or full virtue (aretè kuria) grounds his virtue-skill analogy. Character virtue stems from the non-rational orektikon and is developed through the habituation of passionate elements, primarily phantasia and pathé. Pathé are pleasurable or affective perceptions, not judgments or beliefs. Thus, pathé are subject to non-rational habituation. Practical wisdom, on the other hand, is an intellectual virtue stemming from the rational part of the soul. Though practical wisdom is necessary for full virtue (aretè kuria), it is not necessary for the habituated character virtue that Aristotle refers in Book II. Once we understand the phantastic basis of emotions and the distinction between habituated and full virtue, the virtue-skill analogy is apt. I conclude by briefly mentioning two contemporary forms of emotion regulation—cognitive reappraisal and cognitive behavioral therapy—that lend support from empirical psychology to Aristotle’s claim that emotions (pathé) can be habituated. Character virtue is indeed a skill; it is—at least in part—the skill of emotion regulation.

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Paul E. Carron
Baylor University


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