Aristotle and Augustine on Doing Wrong

Aristotle, the Ancient Greek philosopher who lived in the 4th century BC and was a student of Plato, had a huge intellectual range and thus was involved in many different branches of science, such as biology, chemistry, history, political theory and, most importantly, philosophy. Among his many philosophical works, a few of them deal with ethics or morality: what actions should be considered right or wrong. According to Aristotle, there are four cardinal virtues that every person must develop and practice throughout their lives. These virtues are prudence (Aristotle considers it the most important one), temperance, or self-control, courage, and justice. Aristotle’s doctrine of the mean states that if the virtues are exhibited insufficiently or, on the opposite side of that, excessively, they turn into vices, which leads to immoral behaviors and wrongdoings. For example, if a soldier does not exhibit enough courage, he is a coward, and if he shows too much courage, he acts recklessly. Both of these behaviors are unwelcomed on the battlefield, thus being an example of a soldier’s wrongdoing. To be truly virtuous, one must find a perfect middle ground or a “mean” between the two extremes of virtue, which is an interesting take on morality.

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Augustine of Hippo, born in 354 AD and died in 430 AD, is one of the most influential Christian theologians and philosophers. His most famous works, Confessions and City of God, were major influences on the philosophy of the medieval and modern Catholic Church. His outlook on ethics was somewhat different from that suggested by Aristotle. Augustine believed that doing wrong, or sinning, is derived not from the action itself but the intention behind that action. The intention consists of receiving a suggestion to sin, finding pleasure in committing that sin, and consenting to commit it. Thus, even if a person doesn’t actually do anything wrong, his evil intent can still be considered a sin. Also, he considered love to be the most important virtue of all, interpreting all the other virtues as an expression of love for God. For example, he viewed temperance as love keeping itself whole and incorrupt in God’s name.

Reflecting on Aristotle’s and Augustine’s ideas of wrongdoing, I would like to point out that Aristotle’s suggested that a person who did the wrong thing often believed that his or her actions were actually good. I agree with this statement since people rarely acknowledge their negative actions and try to find excuses for them rather than just apologizing for the wrongdoing. On the other hand, Augustine believed that all wrongdoing came from will, which is a controversial opinion. In my experience, one can do wrong without realizing it, which leads to later conflicts and misunderstandings. Therefore, My outlook on what “doing wrong” means stands closer to Aristotle’s system of ethics, rather than that of Augustine’s. I agree with Aristotle that true virtue lies in moderation, as having too much or not enough of a good thing may lead to negative consequences. A person always needs to be reasonable and levelheaded to keep him or herself from doing wrong. As for Augustine’s ideas, I, not being a very spiritual person, do not believe that simply thinking about doing wrong things is a wrongdoing. Real, physical actions of a person are the ones that matter the most.

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