Wit’s Justice in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics
Cover of Volume 44 (1)
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How to Cite

Wit’s Justice in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. (2020). The Political Science Reviewer, 44(1), 47-70. https://politicalsciencereviewer.wisc.edu/index.php/psr/article/view/626


In Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, the virtue of wit can be easily overlooked.  Coming quickly behind the more notable virtue, magnanimity, it is grouped with what are generally referred to as the two other social virtues, truthfulness and friendliness, and is then followed by an extensive discussion on justice. Wit, along with the other social virtues, seems to belong to a lower class of virtues, existing for those of us who will never truly be magnanimous or who are incapable of the difficult mathematics of justice. Indeed, Aristotle seems to minimize the social virtues by highlighting their “namelessness.” Both truthfulness and friendliness, however, are notably followed by lengthy discussions of similar virtues, the intellectual virtues and friendship respectively. In the brief discussion of wit, Aristotle compares the witty person to a legislator and describes him as a law unto himself. Just as Aristotle invites us to compare the relationship of truthfulness to the intellectual virtues and friendliness to friendship, so too he asks that we think about the role that the seemingly small virtue of wit plays in a just society. The characteristics of wit that Aristotle describes, namely its dextrous nature that is simultaneously “a law unto itself” and concerned with the good of its audience, speak to the broader argument of the Ethics that the soul finds its proper activity in relationship to other human beings. Wit, Aristotle demonstrates, is essential for a political community to flourish because it moves distinct individuals to recognize their dependence on each other and, from this grounding, take pleasure in a common good.

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