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Aristotle (and the misattribution to him) on Excellence

Aristotle (and the misattribution to him) on Excellence November 19, 2021

That famous Aristotle quote…

“We are repeatedly what we do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit”

Well, that’s not actually Aristotle, it was Will Durant. Aristotle did say (bold my emphasis):

Virtue, then, being of two kinds, intellectual and moral, intellectual virtue in the main owes both its birth and its growth to teaching… Moral virtue comes about as a result of habit…  None of the moral virtues arises in us by nature… We are adapted by nature to receive them, and are made perfect by habit. (Nicomachean Ethics, Book II)

Clearly, the underlying vibe is consistent between the actual quote and misattribution. We should keep in mind that Durant was just trying to represent what Aristotle was getting at; the misattribution simply confuses Durant’s paraphrase of Aristotle’s point for Aristotle’s own words. Caelan Huntress did a nice piece on this as did Frank Herron and Brad Sylvester. Even Wikiquote has the record straight. Looking into the source of confusion, it’s easy to see why the Will Durant misquote still haunts us today,  even in philosophy texts and websites.

When you look at various interpretations of Nicomachean Ethics, the terms “virtue” and “excellence” are equated. The timeless truth Aristotle is getting it is that excellence (or virtue) is not about knowing, it’s about doing, and doing repeatedly.

As I love the point behind the actual Aristotle (and the misattributed quote), I felt it virtuous to help continue to set the record straight.

Image: Jastrow (2006)


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