Is the best way of life to be found in the life of political action? Or is the best life the one spent contemplating the highest things? In this two-week course, students will examine these two ways of life – the life of the philosopher and the life of a statesman – through close readings of Aristotle and Shakespeare.

For the first week, led by Professor Robert Bartlett, students will focus on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics and Politics. They will investigate the relations between virtue and happiness and virtue and politics in a systematic inquiry. Over the second week, led by Professor Vickie Sullivan, students will explore how literary works can reveal the direct effect of politics on individuals in a way a political treatise cannot. By study of Shakespeare’s Henry V and Macbeth, they will consider how Shakespeare’s work “[shows] most vividly and comprehensively the fate of tyrants, the character of good rulers, the relations of friends, and the duties of citizens.”

Images: Robert Smirke, Falstaff Rebuked, c. 1795 | Henry William Bunbury, Falstaff reproved by King Henry, late-18th century, courtesy Folger Library

Robert Bartlett on Aristotle's Guide to the Good Life


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.

Vickie Sullivan

Vickie Sullivan is the Cornelia M. Jackson Professor of Political Science and teaches and studies political thought and philosophy.  She also maintains teaching and research interests in politics and literature. She has published extensively on Montesquieu and Machiavelli and is the co-editor of  Shakespeare’s Political Pageant.

Preview the Syllabus by Week/Session

Recommended Reading:

Aristotle, The Great Thinkers




Discussion Questions:

  1. The “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 1 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”?



Discussion Questions:

  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?



Discussion Questions:

  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?



Discussion Questions:

  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?

Other Courses You Might Be Interested In

Family & Politics

Explore the ways family life can affect the life of a political community.

Foundations of Grand Strategy

Assess grand strategic theory and practice in Thucydides and Plutarch.

National Identity & Why It Matters

Explore the idea of national identity and its role in maintaining a successful political order.

Plato’s Republic

Study Plato’s Republic, perhaps the greatest work of political philosophy ever written.

What Is Political Philosophy?

Explore the work of Leo Strauss, one of the twentieth century’s most consequential teachers and scholars of political philosophy.

What Is Liberal Education?

Reflect on the enduring value of liberal education and its importance for a free society.