Aristotle’s and Christian views on virtuous living differ on who can receive happiness through living a virtuous life and in what the virtues are. Aristotle said that the “happy life seems to be a life in accord with virtue …” (Nicomachean Ethics [NE], 163). Virtues are what is “fine and right”. The virtuous person aims toward excellence in what he or she does and toward what is “fine” and “right” in their moral conduct. The virtuous person is able to perform the right action at the right time in the right amount, because virtue is infused into his or her character (Bankard & NE, 353).
Christians would agree that aiming toward excellence and toward what is “fine” and “right” is synonymous with virtuous living. In my study, the closest term I can think of that is compatible with Aristotle’s definition of the term virtue is holiness. One of the differences is that Aristotle said that pursuing a life of virtue is close to living as the gods and being loved by the gods (NE 167, 331-332). The Christian’s pursuit of a life of holiness is to imitate God. Christians do not become God; they strive to be like God. God loves human beings whether they strive to be holy or not.
Aristotle distinguishes between two types of virtues: the intellectual virtues and the moral virtues. The difference between the two is that the intellectual virtues are gained through reason alone. These virtues lead to moral virtues, which are action derived from reasonable thought (NE, 87, 353).
According to A Handbook of Theological Terms by Van A. Harvey, Roman Catholics distinguish two types of virtues: those that can be gained through education, repetition and infusion into the soul supernaturally through “sanctifying grace” (natural virtues) and those that can only be gained supernaturally (theological virtues). The natural virtues are prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance. The theological virtues are faith, hope and charity. Roman Catholics believe that “faith (for instance) is a ‘habit’ and that good deeds performed by the faithful merit further graces” (Harvey, 248 – 249). Aristotle also felt that habit was essential in developing virtue (NE, 52). The more one practices the virtues, the easier they become. Perhaps the Roman Catholic view is more simplistic and includes some of what Aristotle listed as the virtues in its definitions of the natural virtues. Faith, hope and charity are not in Aristotle’s list.
While Christians are taught that everyone can become virtuous (or holy), Aristotle tends to be aristocratic in his opinion on who can be truly happy. “…But no one would allow that a slave shares in happiness …” he wrote (NE, 163). Only those who reason and who study can be happy. In Christian thinking, reasoning and studying is a result of the life of faith. Loving God and one’s neighbor as oneself is the central goal in Christianity, not happiness.
Harvey, Van A., A Handbook of Theological Terms (New York: Touchstone) 1964.