What does it mean to define something? At a minimum, it means to set it apart from others; for if x is to be defined, it must be defined as distinguished from y; otherwise, it remains subsumed and indistinguishable; for if in discussing x, you are unable to make heads or tails out of whether I am discussing either x or y, I have failed to set a boundary around the word, the subject, or concept about which I am discussing. I have failed to define my terms.
When taking on a partner in a business venture; accepting employment with a company or firm; interviewing a potential job candidate; considering a friendship; considering marriage; do we ever ask the question, Does he/she possess virtue? Or, What virtues (pluralizing the concept) does he/she possess? Is he/she virtuous (i.e., does that person’s essence or personhood contain the characteristics of virtue)? Are such questions so culturally irrelevant and anachronistic that they are no longer considered (is it similar to asking, how far must I travel before I fall off the edge of the earth?) Culturally, of course, it is interesting in this Post-modern Age that our language is dominated by purely emotive-injected adrenaline. Do I like him/do I love him/does he excite me/does he care for me? Virtue is without meaning; not because it cannot be defined, for certainly anyone can turn to a dictionary and verbalize the definition; rather, it has no meaning because it has no cultural relevance; it is a vacuous concept; it has fallen off the edge of the earth.
But can a truth exist without a mind to embrace it? Can virtue escape the historical relativity to which it has been relegated? And, moreover, how does one attain virtue? How can virtue retain a significance when the concept itself has been subsumed into relative vacuity? In Book II, Chapter 1, (1103b 21, following), Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle provides the key:
After noting that “moral virtue comes about as a result of habit,” he states: Thus, in one word, states of character arise out of like activities. This is why the activities we exhibit must be of a certain kind; it is because the states of character correspond to the differences between these. It makes no small difference, then, whether we form habits of one kind or of another from our very youth; it makes a very great difference, or rather all the difference.
Thus, the conceptual vacuity of a concept like virtue need not remain so; truth unembraced and unacknowledged need not be perennially forgotten in the temple of meaninglessness; Aristotle’s point is that virtue, properly understood, has nothing to do with conceptual existence or non-existence; it has to do with the habit of acting in such manner as the consistency of actions brings about a state of character – of being virtuous. Just as one becomes a murderer by murdering; one is dishonest by acting dishonestly; so, one becomes virtuous by acting in a virtuous manner. Simplicity is often the subtle voice of profundity, and Aristotle is the master craftsman. In the cultural void of modern day; where chivalry, manners, being a ‘gentleman’; indignation at moral inappropriateness; embarrassment at lewd conduct; one may still define virtue, simply by being virtuous. And that is certainly how it should be – for words are cheap; a man can claim to be virtuous but act in ways which clearly define him differently; yet, consider the opposite: a man who acts virtuous, remains virtuous despite private thoughts to the contrary, for virtue is not defined by thoughts; it is defined by actions.
And so it is; we may recapture virtue, by being so. Let those who speak meaninglessness sound the hollow sounds of vacuity; those of substance, let his actions reveal the true Being of Virtue.