This course focuses on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics and Politics. Through a close reading of these texts, we will investigate the relations between virtue and happiness and virtue and politics. We devote most of the week to the Nicomachean Ethics and its study of the human good before following this study into the Politics, particularly its discussion of the kind and quality of regimes.

Image: Charles Laplante, Aristotle and his pupil Alexander, 1866

Robert Bartlett on Aristotle

Faculty

Robert C. Bartlett

Robert C. Bartlett is the Behrakis Professor of Hellenic Political Studies at Boston College. His principal area of research is classical political philosophy, with particular attention to the thinkers of ancient Hellas, including Thucydides, Plato, and Aristotle. He is the co-translator of a new edition of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics.

Preview the Syllabus by Week/Session

Recommended Reading:

Aristotle, The Great Thinkers

 

Readings:

 

Reading Questions:

  1. Consider the first two sentences of Book I: can you think of an example that casts doubt on Aristotle’s sweeping claim about the good?
  2. Can you connect the dots from the art of bridle-making to the art of the general?
  3. In what sense might “the political art” determine the good at which all things are said to aim? Is that really plausible?
  4. At the beginning of Chapter 3, Aristotle warns us not to expect too much precision: why?
  5. If you consider yourself to be young, should you not be studying this book?
  6. As you read Chapters 4-5, try to track like a hound dog the varying ways people are said to identify the good we seek
  7. What does the return to the topic of happiness in Chapter 7 add to the earlier discussion? What’s new?
  8. Reflect on the last sentence of Chapter 8: what two reactions to the problem of happiness does Aristotle there sketch? Can you think of concrete examples?
  9. What is the significance of Priam in Chapter 10?

 

Writing Prompts:

  1. The U.S. Declaration of Independence specifies the right to the pursuit, as distinguished from the attainment, of happiness. Aristotle in the opening chapters of the Ethics seems to go much further by suggesting that politics or “the political art” is intimately bound up with and may even secure “happiness,” understood as the superlative good that is the target of all our lesser strivings. What precisely is Aristotle’s argument concerning the relation of politics and happiness, and do you find it persuasive? Has it been superseded by modern liberal democracy, which seems to leave to each of us the right to pursue happiness as we think best?
  2. Although we often use “happy” or “happiness” in very casual ways—“I’m not that happy with my sandwich”—Aristotle is at pains in Book I of the Ethics to flesh out our deepest hopes for happiness, together with the obstacles those hopes encounter. What is “happiness” according to Aristotle?
  3. The distinction between means and ends seems to play an important role in Aristotle’s account of happiness. What exactly does Aristotle mean by an “end”?

Readings:

 

Reading Questions:

  1. What are the differences between the two kinds of virtue?
  2. Why is “habit” so important to moral virtue?
  3. Consider the difference between the example of the eye and that of the horse in 2.6. Which might be closer to moral virtue?
  4. Why is there no “mean” with regard to adultery?
  5. Consider the sketch of all the moral virtues on p. 303–04. Can you think of virtues of character that are missing from his list? Any surprising virtues included (or things you think are not properly virtues)?
  6. Is sense of shame a virtue according to Aristotle?
  7. Why might Aristotle take up courage first?
  8. Why is courage choice-worthy? (That’s a somewhat trickier question than it might at first appear.)
  9. At 3.8, Aristotle lists five kinds of pseudo-courages, so to speak. Any guess as to why he might do that, something he does not do in the case of any of the other moral virtues?
  10. As you read the famous account of the “great souled” (magnanimous) human being, try to get a picture in your mind’s eye of the person. Can you think of a real-world embodiment? Is it even an attractive picture?

 

Writing Prompts:

  1. Aristotle’s Ethics is probably best known for its doctrine of virtue as a “mean.” State clearly the principal features of that doctrine. Do you find it a helpful guide to correct action?
  2. Only in the case of courage does Aristotle speak at length of the characteristics of soul that resemble it but in various ways fall short. Give a clear account of the crucial features of the real thing, while also supplying a guess at least as to why Aristotle spends so much time on the ersatz versions of it.
  3. Do significant statesmen—say Washington or Churchill—exemplify the core of Aristotle’s discussion of greatness of soul? Or are there important differences?

Readings:

 

Reading Questions:

  1. Sketch a simple diagram of the two meanings of “justice” according to Aristotle, as well as of the subdivisions of the one kind of justice.
  2. How does Aristotle first present justice in relation to law? Any reservations about that?
  3. Track the description of law as Aristotle proceeds through the chapter.
  4. What is “equity,” and what does it add to (or subtract from) the preceding account of justice?
  5. The assignment from Book 10 can plausibly claim to be the climax of the whole book. What is revealed here that is far from clear from the rest of the book?
  6. What are the main reasons for Aristotle’s high praise of intellectual (or contemplative) virtue?

 

Writing Prompts:

  1. How are reciprocity and equality related in Chapter 5 of Book V?
  2. Why, according to Chapter 9 of Book X, are laws necessary?

Readings:

 

Reading Questions:

  1. Compare the first sentence of the Politics with the opening of the NE: thoughts?
  2. Here we watch the city “grow,” almost literally. Hence Aristotle stresses its natural character, and we of course are famously “political animals”: but how else might somebody then (and even now) conceive of the political community, if not in terms of nature? Where else might it be said to come from?
  3. Slavery was and is a controversial, even explosive, question. What in a nutshell is Aristotle’s view of the matter? Is he “pro-slavery” or “anti-slavery” or something else?
  4. Why is Aristotle so insistent that slave mastery and political rule are two different things?
  5. In his famous and difficult analysis of political justice—justice as embodied by different regimes—his discussion quickly becomes a quarrel between oligarchs and democrats. Any guess as to why?
  6. What is the standard, or the standards, with a view to which Aristotle adjudicates the competing claims to just rule of the two sides, democratic and oligarchic?
  7. If the end of politics is virtue, or the promotion of virtue, and aristocracy can claim to be the party of virtue, so to speak, does Aristotle’s argument culminate in affirming the case of aristocracy to be the simply just regime?
  8. Note the treatment of law throughout here: anything strike you about it?

 

Writing Prompts:

  1. What is Aristotle’s final understanding of “natural” slavery? What relevance does his discussion of slavery have for the rest of his political thought?
  2. What is the point of Aristotle’s discussion of flutes in Book III, Chapter 12?
  3. What is the strongest part of the “oligarchic” claim to rule?

Readings:

 

Reading Questions:

  1. Books 4, 5, and 6 are often called the “practical books.” For good reason?
  2. Aristotle gives an additional account of the kinds of regimes here. We learn among other things that there is a very great variety of democracies and oligarchies (compare Book 3).
  3. What is Aristotle’s advice to a tyrant (5.10)?
  4. Probably the most famous section here is the “best practicable” regime (4.11). What distinguishes it?
  5. Aristotle’s discussion of the best way of life, which is necessarily the target of the simply best regime, is subtle and surprisingly difficult. Notice any similarities or differences between it and the discussion of happiness in the NE?
  6. How does “the god” and “the cosmos” figure into Aristotle’s argument here?

 

Writing Prompts:

  1. If human beings are naturally political, why are there so many different kinds of political organization? Why don’t humans fall naturally into one sort of society, as bees and other social animals seem to?

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