Vice and virtue

An essai on chapter 2 of Aristotle’s Poetics.


The objects the imitator represents are actions, with agents who are necessarily either good men or bad — the diversities of human character being nearly always derivative from this primary distinction, since the line between virtue and vice is one dividing the whole of mankind. It follows, therefore, that the agents represented must be either above our own level of goodness, or beneath it, or just such as we are.

—Aristotle, Poetics

The second chapter of the Poetics is one of the shortest in the book; but it is here that we come to a pons asinorum, an obstacle that many would-be critics never get across, and I am not entirely sure that Aristotle himself had crossed it when he wrote this particular book. But as writers we must get across, because the entire business of character and its depiction in poesis lies on the other side.

The pagan Greeks had what one might call a Cyclopean view of morality. A Cyclops with its single eye is capable of great perspicacity regarding the object in its focus, but it is notoriously likely to overlook even the most obvious things outside that narrow angle. Its lack of peripheral vision is its undoing; and a sense of proportion, which is necessary to ethics, requires the ability to relate the central things to the peripheral. So the Greek ethical philosophers were much concerned with the attainment of ἀρετή, ‘excellence’, but they tended to have a narrow view of what one ought to excel at.

Popular opinion in classical Greece tended to extol the martial virtues above all others: not an unnatural attitude among a people divided into tiny states perpetually in conflict, whose most famous city was named after a goddess of both wisdom and war. Even Plato patterned his ideal state after the military tyranny of the Spartans, who would gladly have killed him if they could. This warlike ethic was readily adopted by the republican Romans, who had so little use for the other branches of Greek philosophy that they repeatedly banned philosophers from their city. Virtus in Latin does not mean ‘virtue’ in the English sense; it derives from vir ‘man’ (sc. adult male), and more nearly means ‘manliness’. And we shall not go very far wrong if we translate ἀρετή ‘manliness’ as well.

(N.B. Where Aristotle uses the word ἄνθρωπος, Bywater’s translation uses ‘man’ in its older sense — sc. human being, regardless of sex; but it uses the same word to translate ἀνήρ, which means ‘man’ in the modern sense — a human adult male. It is not always obvious from context which word is meant by a given occurrence of ‘man’. I shall go ahead and use ‘man’ in the older sense, with apologies to those of modern sensibilities; and if in the process I make Aristotle look like an arrant sexist, I can only reply that he really was. Any appearance of sexism on my own part, I will bear without comment, and ask my readers to bear along with me, in the interest of brevity.)

To both the Greeks and the Romans, a virtuous or excellent man was above all a good warrior; slaves did not possess ἀρετή — later in the Poetics, Aristotle describes slaves as worthless — and slaves, generally speaking, were captives in war, so that today’s conquering hero, chock-full of ἀρετή, could well be tomorrow’s worthless loser. It is curiously like the dog-eat-dog ethic one finds among professional athletes and Hollywood stars. The excellent man must not be cruel — but Spartans were cruel to Helots, because Helots did not count; the excellent man must not be unjust — but Athenians were unjust to metics and foreigners, because metics and foreigners did not matter. In every state, the citizen class were coolly indifferent to the plight of women and slaves. The idea that a man’s morals show most clearly in how he treats his social inferiors had yet to take root. Until late in Aristotle’s lifetime, the Greeks were living in the insolence of their victories, and had not yet learnt the lessons of defeat and subjugation that gave a more humane cast to the ethics of the Jews. That lesson came to Greece for the first time with Alexander, and would be taught again by Rome.

All humans tend to overrate the value of their abilities, even if they do not overrate their abilities. The athlete admits that he is not as clever as the scientist, but to the athlete, cleverness is not as important as bodily prowess — therefore jocks are better than geeks. The scientist admits that he is not as athletic as the athlete, but it is the life of the mind that matters — therefore geeks are better than jocks. We always tend to excel at the things we consider most important, because we give most of our time and effort to those things. It takes either a philosopher or a defeated man to recognize that his own little field of endeavour is not the most important thing there is. And only a wit or a cynic can quite appreciate how silly it is to rate yourself highly because you are good at something that most other people do not even try to do. It is like thinking that your umbrella is the best umbrella in the world because none of the others are keeping you, personally, dry.

When all the Greeks admired the ἀρετή of the successful soldier, and despised all non-Greeks as barbarians, they had no other standard to act as a corrective to their opinion of themselves. Even the Athenians, the most intellectual of the peninsular Greeks, piqued themselves chiefly on their empire until they lost it; it was only after their political downfall that they began to take pride in their learning. In Roman times, conquered Athens survived on the reputation of its philosophers, a kind of university town without a university. In Aristotle’s time, the Athenians could still believe the wild idea that excellence in military matters was naturally accompanied by excellence in philosophy and in everything else. This, I am afraid, is what Aristotle is talking about when he says that ‘the diversities of human character’ are ‘nearly always derivative from this primary distinction’. He means that an ‘excellent’ man, a good soldier-citizen, is ipso facto the only kind of man who is likely to be really good at anything else.

To us, who have absorbed the atmosphere of two thousand years of Christianity even if we are not Christians ourselves, Aristotle’s words are likely to have a meaning he never intended; but for the writer as such, it is a far more fruitful one. He says that ‘the line dividing virtue and vice is one dividing the whole of mankind’: meaning that among every nation there are virtuous people and vicious people, ‘high’ people and ‘low’. To a Christian, the line dividing virtue and vice divides the whole of mankind because it divides each individual human heart. I know that I have a few of the virtues and a good many of the vices; so does everyone else, in varying measures and proportions. The battle between good and evil is real, but it is very seldom a battle between the Good Man, X, and the Bad Man, Y. It is the struggle in X between his conscience and his appetites, and the same struggle in Y; and if X and Y come to blows, it is generally because X has given in to his appetites at Y’s expense.

I will return to this matter in its proper place, but for now I want to observe that Aristotle’s division of virtue and vice is invidious because it implies a single agreed-upon standard that we have not got. Later on,* Aristotle himself delved deeply into the problems with this view. In the Nicomachean Ethics he addresses many different kinds of virtue, and his own observation of the human race — nay, even his own observation of himself — must have compelled him to accept that the gods have not given all the virtues to any one man. The diversities of human character are not all derivative from the primary distinction of virtuous men vs. vicious men; rather, a man may be deemed virtuous or vicious as a composite measure of the many different qualities he happens to possess. And a man who is considered virtuous by one standard — the standard of the Greeks, say, which exalts the martial and masculine qualities — may justly be found vicious by another standard — the standard of Christians, say, or Buddhists. Even if they agree on the virtues, they do not agree about their relative importance, and one standard assigns a greater weight than another to the same man’s faults.

Nowadays we are only too aware that other people have different standards from ours. The habitual modern, or Postmodern, reaction to this is to profess ‘tolerance’ as the highest virtue, and pretend to admit or admire all standards equally. In practice this means abdicating all standards; worse, it means actively siding against those who have high standards and with those who have low standards or none. If, for instance, Smith expects people to be truthful and Jones has no objection to lying, then Smith is not being ‘tolerant’ when he criticizes Jones as a liar. The person who equates tolerance with the summum bonum then has to take Jones’ side against Smith, and actively favour the worse against the better man.

Along with this habit goes an ingrained refusal to consider whether any given standard has objective merit. If ‘tolerance’ is all, then the concept of merit is meaningless, or worse, ‘intolerant’ because it implies a standard of comparison. We cannot accept any given standard; we cannot even accept the idea of standards as such. That being the case, we cannot investigate the probable effects of holding this or that standard, behaving in this or that way, on one’s success or failure in life. Since Jones is a liar, people know they cannot trust him, and he has lost many jobs and botched many undertakings because of this fault. The honest Smith has succeeded in his career because people know he will deliver value for money. But the ‘tolerant’ person, who cannot admit that any ethical rule is better than its opposite, has to cast about for some other explanation. The obvious one is that Smith (whom we already know to be ‘intolerant’ and therefore evil) is in some mysterious way exploiting Jones and holding him down.

The result of all this sophistry is to produce, in the Postmodern human, a complete inversion of morals and values, a trained habit of favouring vice over virtue and deserved failure over deserved success. (Both success and failure can be undeserved, of course, and if ‘tolerance’ has a practical value, it is that it encourages people to be generous to those who failed without deserving it. But there are other principles, like Christian charity or secular philanthropy, that can give the same encouragement without clouding the intellect.)

But this inversion and confusion exist only in the intellect, not in what the Greeks called the heart; it is second nature, not human nature itself. In particular, the instinct for story denies it. Except for the small number of people who read literary fiction — which is, as I would argue, not meant to be read as story in any case, but merely as rhetoric — the audience for poesis wants its tales to be moral; it even wants them to be moralizing. It wants actions to mean things, not in an esoteric and symbolic way, but in the obvious way — by having consequences. The audience wants to see vice punished and virtue rewarded; or if they are not, it wants the storyteller (and the characters) to understand and share the audience’s outrage at being cheated. The reader’s eye is still drawn to protagonists; the filmgoer’s heart still beats faster for heroes.

It is of the utmost importance to hold onto this truth, for nearly all modern literary theory is concerned to deny it. By privileging character over plot, and language over character; by denigrating the ‘stock’ devices of narrative tension and resolution; by over-valuing technique and depreciating form and structure — by all these tricks, theory saps the vitality of Poesis and makes her productions less palatable to the public. Even if the public thinks it agrees with the philosophical basis upon which these errors are made, they remain errors; they are errors at the box-office — they bring on failure. When Popeye the Sailor sees Bluto threatening Olive Oyl with a fate worse than death, he must not begin an investigation into the ‘root causes’ of Bluto’s antisocial tendencies; he must not bolster Bluto’s self-esteem, or give Olive a lecture on tolerance and ‘accepting the Other’. No, he must eat his spinach and get to work. The audience will settle for nothing less. It came to the theatre not for a lecture on sociology, but for the thrill of vicariously beating up bad guys.

But the necessity of standards, the need for a story to distinguish between virtue and vice, does not take away the problem of standards. It merely makes it acute and complex. Some standard of good and bad we must have; but whose? For the purposes of the Poetics, Aristotle appeals to the standard of the Greek aristocrat, the upper-class citizen, the ruler — ideally, the king. For although most of the Greek cities were democracies or oligarchies in his time, the stock material of Greek poesis was the ancient myths, in which the cities were still ruled by monarchs. The two great heroes of the Iliad are the sons of kings; the hero of the Odyssey is a minor king himself. We are not so fond of kings and their doings nowadays; this, too, is a development that Christianity brought in and modern thought intensified. We have many competing standards that we might judge by, but we must choose one for a given story; so how shall we choose between them?

Here Aristotle, probably accidentally (for he cannot have anticipated our modern troubles), comes to our rescue. He does this by an analogy with the visual arts. Polygonus, he says, painted people as better than they are; Pauson painted them worse; Dionysius painted them just like ourselves. You can idealize people, you can ‘ironize’ them (in Northrop Frye’s usage of the word), or you can try to represent them realistically and ‘in the round’. In fact, the little that has survived of Greek painting (mostly on vases, or in late Roman mural copies) suggests that it was a rather primitive and cartoonish thing, hardly capable of realism at the best of times. The technical perfection that the Greeks brought to statuary was not approached in painting until the Italians combined perspective drawing and oil-painting, two thousand years later. All Greek painting, in effect, is caricature; but this is actually a good thing for our purpose, because so is all poesis.

The essential thing about representation (as St. Augustine would remind us) is that the representation is not the thing represented; or as Magritte put it, ‘Ceci n’est pas une pipe.’ The image in La trahison des images looks very like a pipe, but it is not a pipe; you cannot put tobacco in it and smoke it — that is, unless you take the picture out of the frame and roll it up, and even then it would be only a very unwieldy and smelly cigarette. Besides, the kind curators of LACMA would be likely to object.

La trahison des images

To make a representation — and that, remember, is the whole function and method of poesis, to represent people and actions in language — you must select and simplify the qualities you want to represent. Every picture, as such, is schematic. A portrait of a man only shows one side of him, in one particular attitude, at one moment in time. A statue shows the man from all angles, but it is still frozen in time, and it is not made of flesh and bone; unlike the man, it cannot get up and walk about when the sitting is over. So it is with a character. A character is only a simplified and schematic representation of a human being. Unlike a painting or a statue, it is not (primarily) a representation of what the subject looks like; on the other hand, it can represent the subject in motion, in thought, in speech and action. Where the visual image cuts transversely across the span of a man’s life, the poetic image cuts longitudinally; it shows the man, as it were, in cross-section, but like a cross-section drawing, it has to leave out every part of him that lies on either side of the plane.

Now, a cross-sectional drawing is always limited by its plane. If I draw a cross-section taken horizontally through your head, I will never be able to show your heart and kidneys, no matter how big I make the drawing: those organs are not in the plane of the picture. But there is another limit, and that is the size of the frame. If my cross-section is life-sized and only three inches across, I will not even be able to show the whole width of your head. What I can do is show some particular aspect of your physical condition that may enlighten and inform you (or your doctor): an X-ray of your teeth, for instance. Again, so it is with character. We can only represent selected scenes from a person’s life in poesis, because to represent the whole life would mean creating a tale that took a whole lifetime to tell. Those scenes will show our subject in some attitudes and actions, but not in others. If the subject is an imaginary person, the things not shown will not even have the kind of secondary existence that we ascribe to the world inside a story; but that does not invalidate the character.

There is a kind of sophomoric criticism that holds that we must represent all the different activities of a person to represent the person: if we do not show Joan of Arc sitting in the lavatory and passing water, we have not shown Joan of Arc at all. The obvious answer to this is that all art is selection, and the art of character involves selecting action and choice. Passing water is not a matter of choice, and it is barely even an action; it is certainly not an action by which St. Joan was distinguishable from any other woman. For the same reason, we do not generally show characters sleeping, unless they are dreaming and the dream is relevant to the purpose of the tale; then we show, not the sleeping character, but the dream. The fact that sleeping and urinating are outside the frame does not invalidate the picture inside the frame. As I said before, I cannot show the state of your kidneys on an X-ray of your head. Since every member of our audience is alive and (we presume) has a life of her own to live, we must omit every aspect of our characters that does not bear immediately upon the events of the story.

So in the first instance, it is relevance, rather than any system of ethics, that will dictate how our characters are to be drawn. Of course the character’s own ethics will appear through his actions; and our ethics as writers, too, in so far as the actions and their consequences are our own invention. For this latter purpose, one ethical standard is as good as another, provided we hold it honestly and subject it to real scrutiny. A good story can be written by a Christian, a Jew, a Muslim, a Hindu, a Buddhist, or an atheist, or by someone who thinks all religious dogmas (including atheism) are ridiculous and wishes they would get drowned together. It can be written by a Liberal or a Conservative; by a Socialist like Orwell, a monarchist like Tolkien, a Distributist like Chesterton, or a Thirty-Dollars-Every-Thursday man like the young Heinlein. (It is doubtful whether a good story can be written by a Marxist, since an essential part of Marxism is the doctrine that human will does not matter. When a man’s thoughts are determined by his economic conditions and his actions by historical inevitability, there is nothing left for character to do. Whenever good poesis has been done by persons professing Marxism, they did it, so to speak, in their ideological time off; and then they generally got in trouble with other Marxists.)

So: choose your standard and stick to it. But some standards are better for some stories. The Grapes of Wrath was definitely a Socialist novel, a Socialist critique of a part of American society; it would have lost its punch if it were written by a political quietist. Animal Farm was written by an outraged English Socialist and can be appreciated by an outraged American conservative, but the outrage has no meaning except as a reaction against Russian Communism. A Stalinist would have made Napoleon the pig a genuine hero, and then there would have been no point to the story: ‘See how things inevitably get better — and better — and better!’ It is propaganda, but it is not poesis.

Now the selection of incidents, the selection of character traits and the actions that reveal them, must depend on the general kind of story we are trying to tell. It is not, as Aristotle says, that we will idealize men in tragedy, and ironize them in comedy. Rather, it is that we will tend to show our characters at their best in tragedy, for it is the best in them that is tried and found wanting; and we will often show them at their worst in comedy, because it is the worst that will make the audience laugh. Slipping on a banana peel is not an appropriate action for Hamlet, but it would be very appropriate for Falstaff. Probably it would throw his back out and cause him to miss a battle, and he would pass off his injury as a wound incurred in the combat that he never saw. This would be entirely consistent with his character. How the banana got to 15th-century England, of course, is another question; but if Shakespeare could put mechanical clocks in Julius Caesar, surely his genius would be equal to this task also.

*I say that Aristotle arrived at this view later based on evidence at hand. The Poetics, I am told, is believed to have been composed about 335 BC, whereas the Ethics may not even have been finished at Aristotle’s death in 322. In between came the cataclysm of Alexander, who dealt a deadly blow to the Greeks’ self-conceit. Philip of Macedon only defeated the Greeks in battle; Alexander did something worse — he decided the fate of the world without them. The army he took on his tour of conquest included relatively few Greeks, and in fact the army of Darius III, which he destroyed at Gaugamela, had a fair number of Greek mercenaries. The victors of Marathon and the defeated both went down before the new barbarians from the North. Moreover, there are some who hold that the Ethics were not put in their final form by Aristotle himself, but by his son Nicomachus, after his death. They would then represent the latest form of the philosopher’s views on the subject, augmented, perhaps, by his son’s own contributions. Nicomachus’ mother is said to have been a slave; if so, he doubtless had rather different views from most Greeks on the indivisibility of ἀρετή.


  1. It’s all very well to say that dishonest Jones is trusted by nobody and so becomes a failure. But that is because he lacks the arete of lying. If he were a really good, a really successful liar, he would become a CEO and a billionaire. “No man can rob successfully over a period of years without pleasing the people he robs. The technique for doing this is highly involved, but master it and you can start your own mint.” (Theodore Sturgeon)

    And the Greeks knew this perfectly well. Their primary examples of arete, after all, were Achilles the brave, the bold, the pigheaded, and Odysseus the crafty, the liar, the one who beats his opponents not by force but by trickery.

    I’m happy to see you cite Frye here; I wish you paid more regard to him in other essays. In particular, people don’t study literature, because it is a subject, not an object, of study. Similarly, physicists study physics, the “criticism” of nature, not nature itself.

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