Both Plato and Aristotle used the idea of skill in their attempts to help their pupils understand virtue. Plato began by helping them understand what kind of knowledge an expert has. Then he used ideas about expert knowledge to describe the specialized knowledge connected with virtue. Aristotle described the activity of acquiring practical skills in order to help his pupils understand the activity of acquiring virtue. Both philosophers seem to deny the importance of the other’s position; however, it is my claim that their accounts complement each other and result in a fuller understanding of virtue.
According to philosopher Julia Annas, “the Greek word for skill is technē, but it can also be translated as ‘craft’ or ‘expertise’. Someone with a technē is an expert in that technē” (229). Skill was connected to ordinary work and usually resulted in a physical object designed to perform a specific function. There are many aspects associated with a skill including:
• Possession of materials and tools
• Knowledge of how to use the materials and tools
• Knowledge of how to produce a fine product
• Knowledge of how to use the finished product
In Euthydemus (Saunders 330-345) Plato, through Socrates, isolates the first three aspects and shows them inadequate instances of an expert’s skill.
• If a carpenter has equipped himself with all his tools and enough wood, but doesn’t do any carpentry, is he going to benefit at all from the possession of them? (280c)
• I’m inclined to think that it is more untoward for something to be used incorrectly than to be left alone, because the one situation is actually bad, but the other is neither good nor bad (281a)
• There’s really no call for us to be lyre-makers or to be masters of a branch of knowledge like that, since in this instance the skills of manufacture and use are separate, though the object is identical (289c)
These aspects of skill were not what Socrates referred to when connecting the idea of skill to virtue. Annas helps to clarify what he was looking for. “There is a real difference between the apprentice and the person who really knows how to do it – a difference that lies not just in having done the job longer or being more familiar with it, but in having mastered something” (230-231). In Euthydemus Socrates was searching for the skill whose possession brings happiness and the expert most qualified to teach this skill. He concludes that the skill must contain universal principles. Skill is more than a collection of particular areas of knowledge.
The expert not only possesses knowledge of these universal principles, reason enables him to grasp the underlying principles of the skill, give an account of what they do, and teach the skill to others. These intellectual elements were the parts that Socrates claimed were the most important parts of a skill. He thought skill was more than a knack; it couldn’t just be picked up by watching somebody or copying them (Annas 231). Experts must be able to teach someone else what they learned. The expert’s teaching needs to include underlying principles that apply to the entire technē. A grasp of the underlying principles enables the expert to adapt to new situations quickly and easily compared to the unskilled. “The person who is reliant on written rules or general directives will, by contrast, lack this flexibility and improvisatory ability, and will react in a relatively mechanical and unsubtle way” (Annas 232). And finally, an expert’s teaching must include an explanation of why he is makings the decisions he makes. These intellectual elements of skill require the expert to analyze both the “what” and the “why”. This level of analysis requires wisdom and intelligence. Now that we know the kind of skill we are looking for in our expert, we can look for it in a virtuous person.
Virtue is something more than the mere attainment or development of virtuous character traits such as temperance, justice, and bravery. Virtuous character traits need to be used correctly in order to satisfy a sufficient condition for happiness. But as Socrates pointed out concerning skill, possession and correct use must be accompanied by intelligence and wisdom (Saunders 331(281b)). The truly virtuous person reflects upon and analyzes virtue. Are Socrates’ most important elements of skill also true of virtue?
The first thing we must discover is whether virtue is teachable. This must go beyond just a description of the virtues themselves. The teacher of virtue should be able to help a pupil understand the implications of virtuous behavior. “Just picking up what other people do will not make an agent virtuous: the most that that could lead to would be mechanical copying, which would not give the agent means to understand what was done” (Annas 234). Next we search for underlying principles about virtue that help establish a sense of appropriate and inappropriate behavior. Without this sense a pupil is ill-equipped to act virtuously in new or unanticipated situations. Finally we must be able to articulate the principles that justify virtue. The virtuous person anticipates questions about why he acts virtuously. He prepares to explain, defend, and consistently justify his positions in terms of general principles (Annas 235). Although these intellectual elements aren’t intuitively connected with our idea of a skill, Socrates makes a persuasive argument for their inclusion in our ideas about what it means to be completely virtuous.
Aristotle used the idea of skill to understand virtue but he disagreed with Plato concerning the necessity of intellectual elements. Experience was the source of expert knowledge for Aristotle, so virtue was an activity. One acquires practical skills by combining natural talent with education/instruction and training by experience (Stichter 189). He thought that pupils learn by doing; and just as one becomes a good cooper by making barrels, one becomes virtuous by acting virtuously. “We acquire virtues just as we acquire crafts, by having first activated them. For we learn a craft by producing the same product that we must produce when we have learned it” (Irwin 19 (1103a32-34)). Aristotle claims that this is especially true of virtues of character because they are the result of habit (1103a17-18).
Virtues of character are influenced by desires and appetites of the non-rational soul yet can be affected by reason. I believe Aristotle thought that training the appetitive part of the soul to respond to reason by creating a habit of virtues of character was a skill that virtuous people practiced. Aristotle also taught that there was another division of virtue concerned with the rational part of the soul, namely virtue of thought. “Virtue of thought arises and grows mostly from teaching; that is why it needs experience and time” (1103a15-17). He acknowledges the role of education in the acquisition of virtue of thought, but ties the concept of skill only to the training of the appetitive portion of the non-rational soul in the acquisition of virtues of character.
Aristotle connected the acquisition of virtue, specifically virtue of character, with technē. He made this connection because it resembled the familiar and intuitive process of the acquisition of practical skills. He rejected Plato’s more intellectually demanding view, but did not completely abandon the idea of connecting skill with virtue (Stichter 184). Plato’s intellectual view seems counterintuitive to Aristotle’s idea that a skill, if done well, will produce a fine product. Unless someone acquires the skill to produce the product, there is no product. But Plato’s idea of skill was connected to a special kind of knowledge of an expert, not the product of an activity. Using intelligence and reason to separate out general principles that allow for adaptability to changing circumstances is not something that one can place on a mantle for all to see and admire, yet Plato helps us see that it is nevertheless skillful and admirable. It is hard to argue that this intellectual skill would not be present in any expert, and especially present in one who lives a good life. Plato and Aristotle aren’t really contradicting each other because they are addressing separate aspects of virtue. Both perspectives taken together give us a greater understanding of the good life.
The combination of Plato and Aristotle’s perspective of the good life helps us to recognize that qualities of virtue are not only possessed but understood by the virtuous soul on a practical and theoretical level. He is temperate, just, and brave and he understands how to teach others to acquire these characteristics. He grasps how to appropriately use these virtues and can explain his actions. He has trained the appetitive part of his soul to respond to reason. He has analyzed the underlying principles of the virtuous life and used them to create habits of virtue for himself. He is a living example and his life testifies to others that good things combined with wisdom and intelligence lead to happiness.