New National War Tax Resistance Coordinating Committee Newsletter

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In the sixth section of the fourth book of The Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle discusses the virtue of amiability.

The various translators I’ve been consulting have come up with an evocative set of prospective translations for the words Aristotle uses to describe people who have an excess or deficiency of amiability, or who hit the mark and approximate the golden mean of just enough:

Various translations of the descriptions of people who have the virtue and vices concerning agreeability
Vice of deficiency Virtue (golden mean) Vice of excess
churlish
cross
contentious
quarrelsome
peevish
surly
antagonistic
cross-grained
cantankerous
litigious
morose
friendly
polite
amiable
courteous
obsequious
over-complaisant
officious
men-pleasing
fawning
flattering

Ross goes with “friendliness” to describe the virtue, but this can be a little misleading, since the virtue doesn’t have to do with forming or maintaining friendships so much as it has to do with how you relate to people whether or not they are your friends. (In Ross’s defense, he seems to be following Aristotle’s lead, as he says that there is no word in Greek for the virtue, but “friendship” is closest.) “Amiability” seems the best of the lot to me, of the English language proposals.

At first, this looks like just sort of a common-sense “things I learned in kindergarten” sort of virtue. But it actually has a very commonplace and challenging element of conscience attached to it: A good example of a situation in which we struggle to find the golden mean of this virtue would be one in which we are among a group of casual acquaintances and one of them tells a joke that depends for its humor on the shared assumption of an offensive racial stereotype. Do we laugh in order to be agreeable, or do we signal our disapproval? When does our obligation to be agreeable and tolerant get eclipsed by our obligations to insist on better standards of behavior or our disgrace at being associated with shameful behavior? “Go along to get along” is a real problem, and it comes from being inattentive to the balancing act this virtue requires.

An amiable person regularly is pleasing to those around him or her, and avoids giving offense. But when a harsh word is called for, or “when acquiescence in another’s action would bring disgrace,” he or she will draw the line and not be afraid to offend.

Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics

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