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Aristotle’s philosophical influence spans the period from his death in 322 BC to today. It has led to a wide range of political viewpoints, as his work has been and re-interpreted to fit different programmes and serve differing goals. His thought has influenced the terminology of philosophy itself: ‘syllogism’, ‘premiss’, ‘conclusion’, ‘substance’, ‘essence’, ‘accident’, ‘metaphysics’, ‘species’, ‘genera’, ‘potentiality’, ‘categories’, ‘akrasia’, ‘dialectic’, and ‘analytic’ are all terms taken from Aristotle. Many contemporary philosophers working on ethics, philosophy of the mind and action, political philosophy, and metaphysics claim that their views are influenced by, or even derived from, Aristotle’s own writings. Still others define their position by the rejection of Aristotle’s views on essentialism, metaphysics, and natural science. And this situation is not merely an artefact of modern times; it is one which has obtained through nearly the whole period of Western philosophy since Aristotle’s death.

As ‘A.E. Taylor’ (the great Aristotelian) noted: ‘the object of Aristotelian study is, then, to help the reader to a far better understanding of familiar language and a fuller comprehension of much that he will find in Dante and Shakespeare and Bacon and Milton’ – hopefully these articles below may assist in your every day understanding of life.

Aristotle: from Wikipedia

Aristotle: from the Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy

Aristotle: A Quick Profile

Aristotle and the Birth of Biology

Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics: Simon Kirchin

Aristotle:from Wikipedia

Bust of Aristotle

Aristotle (Greek: Αριστοτέλης Aristotelēs) (384 BC – March 7, 322 BC) was an ancient Greek philosopher. Along with Plato, he is often considered to be one of the two (Plato being the other) most influential philosophers in Western thought. He wrote many books about physics, poetry, zoology, government, and biology.


1 Introduction

1.1 History and influence of Aristotle's work

2 Biography

3 Methodology

3.1 Aristotelian science
3.1.1 Aristotle's Four Causes
3.1.2 The Difference Between Natural Objects and Artifacts

4 Aristotle's logic

5 Aristotle's Ethics

6 Aristotle's critics

7 Bibliography


The three greatest ancient Greek philosophers were Aristotle, Plato (a teacher of Aristotle) and Socrates (c. 470-399 BC), whose thinking deeply influenced Plato. Among them they transformed early (now presocratic) Greek philosophy into the foundations of Western philosophy as we know it. Socrates did not leave any writings, possibly as a result of the reasons articulated against writing philosophy attributed to him in Plato's dialogue Phaedrus. His ideas are therefore known to us only indirectly, through Plato and a few other writers. The writings of Plato and Aristotle form the core of Ancient philosophy.

Their works, although connected in many fundamental ways, are very different in both style and substance. Plato mainly wrote philosophical dialogues, that is arguments in the form of conversations, usually with Socrates as a participant. Though the early dialogues are concerned mainly with methods of acquiring knowledge and most of the last ones with justice and practical ethics, his most famous works expressed a synoptic view of ethics, metaphysics, reason, knowledge and human life. The fundamental idea is that knowledge gained through the senses is always confused and impure, true knowledge being acquired by the contemplative soul that turns away from the world. The soul alone can have knowledge of the Forms, the real essences of things, of which the world we see is but an imperfect copy. Such knowledge has ethical as well as scientific importance. Plato can be called, with qualification, an idealist and a rationalist.

Aristotle, by contrast, placed much more value on knowledge gained from the senses and would correspondingly be better classed among modern empiricists (see materialism and empiricism). He set the stage for what would eventually develop into the scientific method centuries later. Although he wrote dialogues early in his career, no more than fragments of these have survived. The works of Aristotle that still exist today are in treatise form and were, for the most part, unpublished texts. These were probably lecture notes or texts used by his students, and were almost certainly revised repeatedly over the course of years. As a result, these works tend to be eclectic, dense and difficult to read. Among the most important ones are Physics, Metaphysics, Nicomachean Ethics, Politics, De Anima (On the Soul) and Poetics.

Aristotle is known for being one of the few figures in history who studied almost every subject possible at the time. In science, Aristotle studied anatomy, astronomy, embryology, geography, geology, meteorology, physics,and zoology. In philosophy, Aristotle wrote on aesthetics, economics, ethics, government, metaphysics, politics, psychology, rhetoric and theology. He also dealt with education, foreign customs, literature and poetry. His combined works practically comprise an encyclopedia of Greek knowledge.

History and influence of Aristotle's work

The history of Aristotle's works from the time of his death until the 1st century BC is obscure. Legend has it that Aristotle's personal library, including the manuscripts of his works, was left to his successor Theophrastus and was later hidden to avoid confiscation or destruction; finally the manuscripts were rediscovered in 70 BC. Andronicus of Rhodes then edited and published the works. In the interim, however, the works could hardly have been forgotten, since Aristotle's school, the Lyceum, was in operation the whole time.

The majority of Aristotle's work has been lost, some since Classical times. There is a glimpse of what we have lost in the praise given by Cicero to the eloquence of Aristotle's dialogues. The surviving works are known and respected for a plain and unadorned (though not easy) style; not one is a dialogue. Some lost works of Aristotle may have survived in hard-to-restore carbonised form at the Villa of the Papyri in Herculaneum, currently under excavation.

In late antiquity Aristotle fell nearly out of sight. Early Christian writers such as Tertullian rejected philosophy altogether as a pagan study that was made obsolete by the Gospels. In the 5th century Saint Augustine used Platonic and Neo-Platonic philosophy in his theology, but had no use for Aristotle. At the end of the century, however, Boethius undertook to translate the works of Aristotle and other Greeks into Latin, as the teaching of Greek was being lost in the West; his translations and commentaries were nearly all that was known of Greek philosophy in the West for several centuries. They were little missed, as the hostility of early Christianity to pagan philosophy continued.

Aristotle's works were read during the Umayyad and Abbasid caliphates, however, and the Islamic philosopher Averroes commented extensively on it and attempted to fuse it with Islamic theology. Maimonides also tried this with Judaism. By the 12th century there was a great revival of interest in Aristotle in Christian Europe, and the great translator William of Moerbeke worked from both Greek and Arabic manuscripts to produce Latin translations. Aristotle's works were commented on by Thomas Aquinas and became the standard philosophical approach of the high and later middle ages. Aristotle's works were held in such esteem that he was known as The Philosopher. Dante calls Aristotle the “master knower” and places him in Limbo with the Good Pagans such as Socrates and Plato in the Divine Comedy (Canto IV).

Indeed, the views of Aristotle became the dogma of scholastic philosophy. It was this dogma that was rejected by the philosophers of the early modern period, such as Galileo and Descartes.

Aristotle's theories about drama, in particular the idea of the dramatic unities, also influenced later playwrights, especially in France. He claimed to be describing the Greek theater, but his work was taken as prescriptive. In more recent times there has been a new revival of interest in Aristotle. His ethical views in particular remain influential.


Early life and studies at the Academe

Further bust of Aristotle

A bust of Aristotle is a nearly ubiquitous ornament in places of high culture in the West.

Aristotle was born at Stageira, a colony of Andros on the Macedonian peninsula Chalcidice in 384 BC. His father, Nicomachus, was court physician to King Amyntas III of Macedon. It is believed that Aristotle's ancestors held this position under various kings of Macedonia. As such, Aristotle's early education would probably have consisted of instruction in medicine and biology from his father. About his mother, Phaestis, little is known. It is known that she died early in Aristotle's life. When Nicomachus also died, in Aristotle's tenth year, he was left an orphan and placed under the guardianship of his uncle, Proxenus of Atarneus. He taught Aristotle Greek, rhetoric, and poetry (O'Connor et al., 2004). Aristotle was probably influenced by his father's medical knowledge; when he went to Athens at the age of 18, he was likely already trained in the investigation of natural phenomena.

From the ages of 18 to 37 Aristotle remained in Athens as a pupil of Plato and distinguished himself at the Academe. The relations between Plato and Aristotle have formed the subject of various legends, many of which depict Aristotle unfavourably. No doubt there were divergences of opinion between Plato, who took his stand on sublime, idealistic principles, and Aristotle, who even at that time showed a preference for the investigation of the facts and laws of the physical world. It is also probable that Plato suggested that Aristotle needed restraining rather than encouragement, but not that there was an open breach of friendship. In fact, Aristotle's conduct after the death of Plato, his continued association with Xenocrates and other Platonists, and his allusions in his writings to Plato's doctrines prove that while there were conflicts of opinion between Plato and Aristotle, there was no lack of cordial appreciation or mutual forbearance. Besides this, the legends that reflect Aristotle unfavourably are traceable to the Epicureans, who were known as slanderers. If such legends were circulated widely by patristic writers such as Justin Martyr and Gregory Nazianzen, the reason lies in the exaggerated esteem Aristotle was held in by the early Christian heretics, not in any well-grounded historical tradition.

Aristotle as philosopher and tutor

After the death of Plato (347 BC), Aristotle was considered as the next head of the Academe, a post that was eventually awarded to Plato's nephew. Aristotle then went with Xenocrates to the court of Hermias, ruler of Atarneus in Asia Minor, and married his niece and adopted daughter, Pythia. In 344 BC, Hermias was murdered in a rebellion (or a Persian attack?), and Aristotle went with his family to Mytilene. It is also reported that he stopped on Lesbos and briefly conducted biological research. Then, one or two years later, he was summoned to his native Stageira by King Philip II of Macedon to become the tutor of Alexander the Great, who was then 13.

Plutarch wrote that Aristotle not only imparted to Alexander a knowledge of ethics and politics, but also of the most profound secrets of philosophy. We have much proof that Alexander profited by contact with the philosopher, and that Aristotle made prudent and beneficial use of his influence over the young prince (although Bertrand Russell disputes this). Due to this influence, Alexander provided Aristotle with ample means for the acquisition of books and the pursuit of his scientific investigation.

According to sources such as Plutarch and Diogenes, Philip had Aristotle's hometown of Stageira burned during the 340s BC, and Aristotle successfully requested that Alexander rebuild it. During his tutorship of Alexander, Aristotle was reportedly considered a second time for leadership of the Academy; his companion Xenocrates was selected instead.

Founder and master of the Lyceum

In about 335 BC, Alexander departed for his Asiatic campaign, and Aristotle, who had served as an informal adviser (more or less) since Alexander ascended the Macedonian throne, returned to Athens and opened his own school of philosophy. He may, as Aulus Gellius says, have conducted a school of rhetoric during his former residence in Athens; but now, following Plato's example, he gave regular instruction in philosophy in a gymnasium dedicated to Apollo Lyceios, from which his school has come to be known as the Lyceum. (It was also called the Peripatetic School because Aristotle preferred to discuss problems of philosophy with his pupils while walking up and down -- peripateo -- the shaded walks -- peripatoi -- around the gymnasium.)

During the thirteen years (335 BC–322 BC) which he spent as teacher of the Lyceum, Aristotle composed most of his writings. Imitating Plato, he wrote "Dialogues" in which his doctrines were expounded in somewhat popular language. He also composed the several treatises (which will be mentioned below) on physics, metaphysics, and so forth, in which the exposition is more didactic and the language more technical than in the "Dialogues". These writings show to what good use he put the resources Alexander had provided for him. They show particularly how he succeeded in bringing together the works of his predecessors in Greek philosophy, and how he pursued, either personally or through others, his investigations in the realm of natural phenomena. Pliny claimed that Alexander placed under Aristotle's orders all the hunters, fishermen, and fowlers of the royal kingdom and all the overseers of the royal forests, lakes, ponds and cattle-ranges, and Aristotle's works on zoology make this statement more believeable. Aristotle was fully informed about the doctrines of his predecessors, and Strabo asserted that he was the first to accumulate a great library.

During the last years of Aristotle's life the relations between him and Alexander the Great became very strained, owing to the disgrace and punishment of Callisthenes whom Aristotle had recommended to Alexander. Nevertheless, Aristotle continued to be regarded at Athens as a friend of Alexander and a representative of Macedonia. Consequently, when Alexander's death became known in Athens, and the outbreak occurred which led to the Lamian war, Aristotle shared in the general unpopularity of the Macedonians. The charge of impiety, which had been brought against Anaxagoras and Socrates, was now, with even less reason, brought against Aristotle. He left the city, saying (according to many ancient authorities) that he would not give the Athenians a chance to sin a third time against philosophy. He took up residence at his country house at Chalcis, in Euboea, and there he died the following year, 322 BC. His death was due to a disease, reportedly 'of the stomach', from which he had long suffered. The story that his death was due to hemlock poisoning, as well as the legend that he threw himself into the sea "because he could not explain the tides," is without historical foundation.

Very little is known about Aristotle's personal appearance except from hostile sources. The statues and busts of Aristotle, possibly from the first years of the Peripatetic School, represent him as sharp and keen of countenance, and somewhat below the average height. His character—as revealed by his writings, his will (which is undoubtedly genuine), fragments of his letters and the allusions of his unprejudiced contemporaries—was that of a high-minded, kind-hearted man, devoted to his family and his friends, kind to his slaves, fair to his enemies and rivals, grateful towards his benefactors. When Platonism ceased to dominate the world of Christian speculation, and the works of Aristotle began to be studied without fear and prejudice, the personality of Aristotle appeared to the Christian writers of the 13th century, as it had to the unprejudiced pagan writers of his own day, as calm, majestic, untroubled by passion, and undimmed by any great moral defects, "the master of those who know".


Aristotle defines philosophy in terms of essence, saying that philosophy is "the science of the universal essence of that which is actual". Plato had defined it as the "science of the idea", meaning by idea what we should call the unconditional basis of phenomena. Both pupil and master regard philosophy as concerned with the universal; the former however, finds the universal in particular things, and calls it the essence of things, while the latter finds that the universal exists apart from particular things, and is related to them as their prototype or exemplar. For Aristotle, therefore, philosophic method implies the ascent from the study of particular phenomena to the knowledge of essences, while for Plato philosophic method means the descent from a knowledge of universal ideas to a contemplation of particular imitations of those ideas. In a certain sense, Aristotle's method is both inductive and deductive, while Plato's is essentially deductive.

In Aristotle's terminology, the term natural philosophy corresponds to the phenomenon of the natural world, which include: motion, light and the laws of physics. Many centuries later these subjects would later become the basis of modern science, as studied through the scientific method. The term philosophy is distinct from metaphysics, which is what moderns term philosophy.

In the larger sense of the word, he makes philosophy coextensive with reasoning, which he also called "science". Note, however, that his use of the term science carries a different meaning than that which is covered by the scientific method. "All science (dianoia) is either practical, poetical or theoretical." By practical science he understands ethics and politics; by poetical, he means the study of poetry and the other fine arts; while by theoretical philosophy he means physics, mathematics, and metaphysics.

The last, philosophy in the stricter sense, he defines as "the knowledge of immaterial being," and calls it "first philosophy", "the theologic science" or of "being in the highest degree of abstraction." If logic, or, as Aristotle calls it, Analytic, be regarded as a study preliminary to philosophy, we have as divisions of Aristotelian philosophy (1) Logic; (2) Theoretical Philosophy, including Metaphysics, Physics, Mathematics, (3) Practical Philosophy; and (4) Poetical Philosophy.

Aristotelian science

Aristotelian discussions about science had only been qualitative, not quantitative. By the modern definition of the term, Aristotelian philosophy was not science, as this worldview did not attempt to probe how the world actually worked through experiment. For example, in his book "The history of animals" he claimed that human males have more teeth than female. Had he only made some observations, he would have found out that this claim is false.

Rather, based on what one's senses told one, Aristotelian philosophy then depended upon the assumption that man's mind could elucidate all the laws of the universe, based on simple observation (without experimentation) through reason alone.

One of the reasons for this was that Aristotle held that physics was about changing objects with a reality of their own, whereas mathematics was about unchanging objects without a reality of their own. In this philosophy, he could not imagine that there was a relationship between them.

In contrast, today the term science refers to the position that thinking alone often leads people astray, and therefore one must compare one's ideas to the actual world through experimentation; only then can one see if one's ideas are based in reality.

Aristotle's Four Causes

Aristotle names four "causes" of things, but the word cause (Greek: αἰτἱα, aitia) is not used in the modern sense of "cause and effect", under which causes are events or states of affairs. Rather, the four causes are like different ways of explaining something:

The material cause 

This is the material that makes up an object, for example, "the bronze and silver ... are causes of the statue and the bowl."

The formal cause 

This is the blueprint or the idea commonly held of what an object should be. Aristotle says, "The form is the account (and the genera of the account) of the essence (for instance, the cause of an octave is the ratio two to one, and in general number), and the parts that are in the account."

The efficient cause 

This is the person who makes an object, or the unmoved mover (God) who moves nature. For example, "a father is a cause of his child; and in general the producer is a cause of the product and the initiator of the change is a cause." This is closest to the modern definition of "cause".

The final cause 

The final cause or telos is the purpose or end that something is supposed to serve. This includes "all the intermediate steps that are for the end ... for example, slimming, purging, drugs, or instruments are for health; all of these are for the end, though they differ in that some are activities while others are instruments."

An example of an artifact that has all four causes would be a table, which has material causes (wood and nails), a formal cause (the blueprint, or a generally agreed idea of what tables are), an efficient cause (the carpenter), and a final cause (using it to dine on).

Aristotle argues that natural objects such as an "individual man" have all four causes. The material cause of an individual man would be the flesh and bone that make up an individual man. The formal cause would be the blueprint of man, that which is used as a guide to create an individual man and to keep him in a certain state called man. The efficient cause of an individual man would be the father of that man, or in the case of all men the “unmoved mover” God who breathed (anima-breath) into the soul (anima-Latin translation) of man. The final cause of man would be as Aristotle stated, “Now we take the human’s function to be a certain kind of life, and take this life to be the soul’s activity and actions that express reason. Hence the excellent man’s function is to do this finely and well. Each function is completed well when its completion expresses the proper virtue. Therefore the human good turns out to be the souls’ activity that expresses virtue.”

The Difference Between Natural Objects and Artifacts

The difference between natural objects and an artifact is that natural objects have self movement. Aristotle defined the difference between a natural object and an artifact when he stated, “In contrast to these, a bed, a cloak, or any other artifact-insofar as it is described as such i.e. as a bed, a cloak, or whatever, and to the extent that it is a product of a craft-has no innate impulse to change; but insofar as it is coincidentally made of stone or earth or a mixture of these, it has an innate impulse to change and just to that extent. This is because a nature is a type of principle and cause of motion and stability within those things to which it primarily belongs in their own right and not coincidentally.” The natural objects are changed to artifacts through crafts but they have an innate impulse of self movement to convert through time to their natural state, and they will all turn into that state when all animals with reason are extinct from earth.

4. Aristotle's logic

Aristotle "says that `on the subject of reasoning' he `had nothing else on an earlier date to speak about'" (Bocheński, 1951). However, Plato reports that syntax was thought of before him, by Prodikos of Keos, who was concerned by the right use of words. Logic seems to have emerged from dialectics, the earlier philosophers used concepts like reductio ad absurdum as rule when discussing, but never understood its logical implications. Even Plato had difficulties with logic. Although he had the idea of constructing a system for deduction, he was never able to construct one. Instead, he relied on his dialectic, which was a confusion between different sciences and methods (Bocheński, 1951). Plato thought that deduction would simply follow from premises, so he focused on having good premises so that the conclusion would follow. Later on, Plato realised that a method for obtaining the conclusion would be beneficial. Plato never obtained such a method, but his best attempt was published in his book Sophist, where he introduced his division method (Rose, 1968).

Analytics and the Organon

What we call today Aristotelian logic, Aristotle himself would have labelled analytics. The term logic he reserved to mean dialectics. Most of Aristotle's work is probably not authentic, since it was most likely edited by students and later lecturers. The logical works of Aristotle were compiled into six books at about the time of Christ:
  1. Categories
  2. On Interpretation
  3. Prior Analytics
  4. Posterior Analytics
  5. Topics
  6. On Sophistical Refutations
The order of the books (or the teahings from which they are composed) is not certain, but this list was derived from analysis of Aristotle's writings. There is one volume of Aristotle's concerning logic not found in the Organon, namely the fourth book of Metaphysics. (Bocheński, 1951).

Modal logic

Aristotle is also the creator of syllogisms with modalities (modal logic). The word modal refers to the word `modes', explaining the fact that modal logic deals with the modes of truth. Aristotle introduced the qualification of necessarily and possibly premises. He constructed a logic which helped in the evaluation of truth but which was very difficult to interpret. (Rose, 1968).

Aristotle's Ethics
See Books: Nicomachean Ethics

The Nicomachean Ethics is one of Aristotle's great works and discusses virtues. The ten books which comprise it are based on notes from his lectures at the Lyceum and were either edited by or dedicated to Aristotle's son, Nicomachus.

In Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle focuses on the importance of continually behaving virtuously and developing virtue rather than committing specific good actions. This can be opposed to Kantian ethics, in which the primary focus is on individual action. Nicomachean Ethics emphasizes the importance of context to ethical behavior – what might be right in one situation might be wrong in another. Aristotle believed that happiness is the end of life and that as long as a person is striving for goodness, good deeds will result from that struggle, making the person virtuous and therefore happy.

Aristotle's critics

Aristotle has been criticised on several grounds.

1. At times, the objections that Aristotle raises against the arguments of his own teacher, Plato, appear to rely on faulty interpretations of those arguments.

2. Although Aristotle advised, against Plato, that knowledge of the world could only be obtained through experience, he frequently failed to take his own advice. Aristotle conducted projects of careful empirical investigation, but often drifted into abstract logical reasoning, with the result that his work was littered with conclusions that were not supported by empirical evidence; for example, his assertion that objects of different mass fall at different speeds under gravity, which was later refuted by Galileo.

3. In the middle ages, roughly from the 12th century to the 15th century, the philosophy of Aristotle became firmly established dogma. Although Aristotle himself was far from dogmatic in his approach to philosophical inquiry, two aspects of his philosophy might have assisted its transformation into dogma. His works were wide ranging and systematic so that they could give the impression that no significant matter had been left unsettled. He was also much less inclined to employ the skeptical methods of his predecessors, Socrates and Plato.

4. Some academics have suggested that Aristotle was unaware of much of the current science of his own time, and that he was a far lesser mathematician than many of his learned contemporaries.
Aristotle was called not a great philosopher, but "The Philosophers Stone" by Scholastic thinkers. Scholastic thinkers blended Aristotelian philosophy with Christianity, bringing the thought of Ancient Greece into the Middle Ages. It required a repudiation of some Aristotelian principles for the sciences and the arts to free themselves for the discovery of modern scientific laws and empirical methods.

The Western mind is "Aristotelian". By this we mean that it formats the external world into factual and "scien"-tific categories. (By "Scien"-tific we mean that something is knowable or known.)

Under the premise of external categorization, the Aristotelian mind has come to equate "experience" with the unified chronical and spatial ontological structure that is the "external" universe -- visible, audible and sensible by the handful of our common, well-identified senses.

By so equating the two, the Aristotelian mind is fully confident, or fully "positive" of the meanings of its utterances and the purposes of all actions. That is to say, it dismisses the possibility of dubious meanings as interpreted by subjects that are at variance in perspectives or phenomenology, and it dismisses the importance of anything other than an objectively defined "purpose" to an action.

Therefore, the Aristotelian mind assumes that when subject A utters "I am X," he or she is referring to the same experience and is expressing the same purpose as subject B who also utters "I am X."


The most complete recent translation of Aristotle's extant works is published by Princeton University Press:
  • The Complete Works of Aristotle: The Revised Oxford Translation (2 Volume Set; Bollingen Series, Vol. LXXI, No. 2), edited by Jonathan Barnes ISBN 0-691-09950-2
  • Oxford University Press publishes scholarly editions in the Clarendon Aristotle Series.
  • The hardbound series Loeb Classical Library, published by Harvard University Press, publishes Aristotle's extant works in Greek, with English translations on facing pages. Their volumes are listed below:
  1. Volume I. Categories. On Interpretation. Prior Analytics ISBN 0-674-99359-4
  2. Volume II. Posterior Analytics. Topica ISBN 0-674-99430-2
  3. Volume III. On Sophisticated Refutations. On Coming-to-be and Passing Away. On the Cosmos ISBN 0-674-99441-8
  4. Volume IV. Physics, Books 1-4 ISBN 0-674-99251-2
  5. Volume V. Physics, Books 5-8 ISBN 0-674-99281-4
  6. Volume VI. On the Heavens ISBN 0-674-99372-1
  7. Volume VII. Meteorologica ISBN 0-674-99436-1
  8. Volume VIII. On the Soul. Parva Naturalia. On Breath ISBN 0-674-99318-7
  9. Volume IX. History of Animals, Books 1-3, ISBN 0-674-99481-7
  10. Volume X. History of Animals, Books 4-6 ISBN 0-674-99482-5
  11. Volume XI. History of Animals, Books 7-10 ISBN 0-674-99483-3
  12. Volume XII. Parts of Animals. Movement of Animals and Progression of Animals ISBN 0-674-99357-8
  13. Volume XIII. Generation of Animals ISBN 0-674-99403-5
  14. Volume XIV. Minor Works: On Colours. On Things Heard. Physiognomics. On Plants. On Marvellous Things Heard. Mechanical Problems. On Indivisible Lies. The Situations and Names of Winds. On Melissus. Xenophanes. Georgias. ISBN 0-674-99338-1
  15. Volume XV. Problems, Books 1-21. ISBN 0-674-99349-7
  16. Volume XVI. Problems, Books 22-38. Rhetorica ad Alexandrum ISBN 0-674-99350-0
  17. Volume XVII. Metaphysics, Books 1-9 ISBN 0-674-99299-7
  18. Volume XVIII. Metaphysics, Books 10-14. Oeconomica. Magna Moralia ISBN 0-674-99317-9
  19. Volume XIX. Nichomachean Ethics ISBN 0-674-99081-1
  20. Volume XX. Athenian Constitution. Eudemian Ethics. Virtues and Vices ISBN 0-674-99315-2
  21. Volume XXI. Politics ISBN 0-674-99291-1
  22. Volume XXII. The Art of Rhetoric ISBN 0-674-99212-1
  23. Volume XXIII. Poetics. On the Sublime. On Style ISBN 0-674-99563-5
The following works are also available individually in paperback
  • The Politics
  • The Nichomachean Ethics (also sometimes titled as The Ethics)
  • Posterior Analytics
  • The Rhetoric / The Art of Rhetoric / Treatise on Rhetoric
  • Physics
  • Metaphysics
  • Poetics
  • The Categories
  • De Anima / On The Soul
  • The Athenian Constitution / The Constitution of Athens
The rest of his work can be found in anthologies or other collections of two or more works.


2. Aristotle: from the Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy

Table of Contents

Philosophy of Nature
The Soul and Psychology

Aristotle was born in 384 BCE. at Stagirus, a Greek colony and seaport on the coast of Thrace. His father Nichomachus was court physician to King Amyntas of Macedonia, and from this began Aristotle's long association with the Macedonian Court, which considerably influenced his life. While he was still a boy his father died. At age 17 his guardian, Proxenus, sent him to Athens, the intellectual center of the world, to complete his education. He joined the Academy and studied under Plato, attending his lectures for a period of twenty years. In the later years of his association with Plato and the Academy he began to lecture on his own account, especially on the subject of rhetoric. At the death of Plato in 347, the pre-eminent ability of Aristotle would seem to have designated him to succeed to the leadership of the Academy. But his divergence from Plato's teaching was too great to make this possible, and Plato's nephew Speusippus was chosen instead. At the invitation of his friend Hermeas, ruler of Atarneus and Assos in Mysia, Aristotle left for his court. He stayed three year and, while there, married Pythias, the niece of the King. In later life he was married a second time to a woman named Herpyllis, who bore him a son, Nichomachus.

At the end of three years Hermeas was overtaken by the Persians, and Aristotle went to Mytilene. At the invitation of Philip of Macedonia he became the tutor of his 13 year old son Alexander (later world conqueror); he did this for the next five years. Both Philip and Alexander appear to have paid Aristotle high honor, and there were stories that Aristotle was supplied by the Macedonian court, not only with funds for teaching, but also with thousands of slaves to collect specimens for his studies in natural science. These stories are probably false and certainly exaggerated.

Upon the death of Philip, Alexander succeeded to the kingship and prepared for his subsequent conquests. Aristotle's work being finished, he returned to Athens, which he had not visited since the death of Plato. He found the Platonic school flourishing under Xenocrates, and Platonism the dominant philosophy of Athens. He thus set up his own school at a place called the Lyceum. When teaching at the Lyceum, Aristotle had a habit of walking about as he discoursed. It was in connection with this that his followers became known in later years as the peripatetics, meaning "to walk about." For the next thirteen years he devoted his energies to his teaching and composing his philosophical treatises. He is said to have given two kinds of lectures: the more detailed discussions in the morning for an inner circle of advanced students, and the popular discourses in the evening for the general body of lovers of knowledge. At the sudden death of Alexander in 323 BCE., the pro-Macedonian government in Athens was overthrown, and a general reaction occurred against anything Macedonian. A charge of impiety was trumped up against him. To escape prosecution he fled to Chalcis in Euboea so that (Aristotle says) "The Athenians might not have another opportunity of sinning against philosophy as they had already done in the person of Socrates." In the first year of his residence at Chalcis he complained of a stomach illness and died in 322 BCE.


It is reported that Aristotle's writings were held by his student Theophrastus, who had succeeded Aristotle in leadership of the Peripatetic School. Theophrastus's library passed to his pupil Neleus. To protect the books from theft, Neleus's heirs concealed them in a vault, where they were damaged somewhat by dampness, moths and worms. In this hiding place they were discovered about 100 BCE by Apellicon, a rich book lover, and brought to Athens. They were later taken to Rome after the capture of Athens by Sulla in 86 BCE. In Rome they soon attracted the attention of scholars, and the new edition of them gave fresh impetus to the study of Aristotle and of philosophy in general. This collection is the basis of the works of Aristotle that we have today. Strangely, the list of Aristotle's works given by Diogenes Laertius does not contain any of these treatises. It is possible that Diogenes' list is that of forgeries compiled at a time when the real works were lost to sight.

The works of Aristotle fall under three headings: (1) dialogues and other works of a popular character; (2) collections of facts and material from scientific treatment; and (3) systematic works. Among his writings of a popular nature the only one which we possess of any consequence is the interesting tract On the Polity of the Athenians. The works on the second group include 200 titles, most in fragments, collected by Aristotle's school and used as research. Some may have been done at the time of Aristotle's successor Theophrastus. Included in this group are constitutions of 158 Greek states. The systematic treatises of the third group are marked by a plainness of style, with none of the golden flow of language which the ancients praised in Aristotle. This may be due to the fact that these works were not, in most cases, published by Aristotle himself or during his lifetime, but were edited after his death from unfinished manuscripts. Until Werner Jaeger (1912) it was assumed that Aristotle's writings presented a systematic account of his views. Jaeger argues for an early, middle and late period (genetic approach), where the early period follows Plato's theory of forms and soul, the middle rejects Plato, and the later period (which includes most of his treatises) is more empirically oriented. Aristotle's systematic treatises may be grouped in several division:

  • Logic

    1. Categories (10 classifications of terms)

    2. On Interpretation (propositions, truth, modality)

    3. Prior Analytics (syllogistic logic)

    4. Posterior Analytics (scientific method and syllogism)

    5. Topics (rules for effective arguments and debate)

    6. On Sophistical Refutations (informal fallacies)

  • Physical works

    1. Physics (explains change, motion, void, time)

    2. On the Heavens (structure of heaven, earth, elements)

    3. On Generation (through combining material constituents)

    4. Meteorologics (origin of comets, weather, disasters)

  • Psychological works

    1. On the Soul (explains faculties, senses, mind, imagination)

    2. On Memory, Reminiscence, Dreams, and Prophesying

  • Works on natural history

    1. History of Animals (physical/mental qualities, habits)

    2. On the parts of Animals

    3. On the Movement of Animals

    4. On the Progression of Animals

    5. On the Generation of Animals

    6. Minor treatises

    7. Problems

  • Philosophical works

    1. Metaphysics (substance, cause, form, potentiality)

    2. Nicomachean Ethics (soul, happiness, virtue, friendship)

    3. Eudemain Ethics

    4. Magna Moralia

    5. Politics (best states, utopias, constitutions, revolutions)

    6. Rhetoric (elements of forensic and political debate)

    7. Poetics (tragedy, epic poetry)


Aristotle's writings on the general subject of logic were grouped by the later Peripatetics under the name Organon, or instrument. From their perspective, logic and reasoning was the chief preparatory instrument of scientific investigation. Aristotle himself, however, uses the term "logic" as equivalent to verbal reasoning. The Categories of Aristotle are classifications of individual words (as opposed to propositions), and include the following ten: substance, quantity, quality, relation, place, time, situation, condition, action, passion. They seem to be arranged according to the order of the questions we would ask in gaining knowledge of an object. For example, we ask, first, what a thing is, then how great it is, next of what kind it is. Substance is always regarded as the most important of these. Substances are further divided into first and second: first substances are individual objects; second substances are the species in which first substances or individuals inhere.

Notions when isolated do not in themselves express either truth or falsehood: it is only with the combination of ideas in a proposition that truth and falsity are possible. The elements of such a proposition are the noun substantive and the verb. The combination of words gives rise to rational speech and thought, conveys a meaning both in its parts and as a whole. Such thought may take many forms, but logic considers only demonstrative forms which express truth and falsehood. The truth or falsity of propositions is determined by their agreement or disagreement with the facts they represent. Thus propositions are either affirmative or negative, each of which again may be either universal or particular or undesignated. A definition, for Aristotle is a statement of the essential character of a subject, and involves both the genus and the difference. To get at a true definition we must find out those qualities within the genus which taken separately are wider than the subject to be defined, but taken together are precisely equal to it. For example, "prime" "odd" and "number" are each wider than "triplet" (i.e., a collection of any three items, such as three rocks); but taken together they are just equal to it. The genus definition must be formed so that no species is left out. Having determined the genus and species, we must next find the points of similarity in the species separately and then consider the common characteristics of different species. Definitions may be imperfect by (1) being obscure, (2) by being too wide, or (3) by not stating the essential and fundamental attributes. Obscurity may arise from the use of equivocal expressions, of metaphorical phrases, or of eccentric words. The heart of Aristotle's logic is the syllogism, the classic example of which is as follows: All men are mortal; Socrates is a man; therefore, Socrates is mortal. The syllogistic form of logical argumentation dominated logic for 2,000 years.


Aristotle's editors gave the name "Metaphysics" to his works on first philosophy, either because they went beyond or followed after his physical investigations. Aristotle begins by sketching the history of philosophy. For Aristotle, philosophy arose historically after basic necessities were secured. It grew out of a feeling of curiosity and wonder, to which religious myth gave only provisional satisfaction. The earliest speculators (i.e. Thales, Anaximenes, Anaximander) were philosophers of nature. The Pythagoreans succeeded these with mathematical abstractions. The level of pure thought was reached partly in the Eleatic philosophers (such as Parmenides) and Anaxagoras, but more completely in the work of Socrates. Socrates' contribution was the expression of general conceptions in the form of definitions, which he arrived at by induction and analogy. For Aristotle, the subject of metaphysics deals with the first principles of scientific knowledge and the ultimate conditions of all existence. More specifically, it deals with existence in its most fundamental state (i.e. being as being), and the essential attributes of existence. This can be contrasted with mathematics which deals with existence in terms of lines or angles, and not existence as it is in itself. In its universal character, metaphysics superficially resembles dialectics and sophistry. However, it differs from dialectics which is tentative, and it differs from sophistry which is a pretence of knowledge without the reality.

The axioms of science fall under the consideration of the metaphysician insofar as they are properties of all existence. Aristotle argues that there are a handful of universal truths. Against the followers of Heraclitus and Protagoras, Aristotle defends both the laws of contradiction, and that of excluded middle. He does this by showing that their denial is suicidal. Carried out to its logical consequences, the denial of these laws would lead to the sameness of all facts and all assertions. It would also result in an indifference in conduct. As the science of being as being, the leading question of Aristotle's metaphysics is: what is meant by the real or true substance? Plato tried to solve the same question by positing a universal and invariable element of knowledge and existence -- the forms -- as the only real permanent besides the changing phenomena of the senses. Aristotle attacks Plato's theory of the forms on three different grounds.

First, Aristotle argues, forms are powerless to explain changes of things and a thing's ultimate extinction. Forms are not causes of movement and alteration in the physical objects of sensation. Second, forms are equally incompetent to explain how we arrive at knowledge of particular things. For, to have knowledge of a particular object, it must be knowledge of the substance which is in that things. However, the forms place knowledge outside of particular things. Further, to suppose that we know particular things better by adding on their general conceptions of their forms, is about as absurd as to imagine that we can count numbers better by multiplying them. Finally, if forms were needed to explain our knowledge of particular objects, then forms must be used to explain our knowledge of objects of art; however, Platonists do not recognize such forms. The third ground of attack is that the forms simply cannot explain the existence of particular objects. Plato contends that forms do not exist in the particular objects which partake in the forms. However, that substance of a particular thing cannot be separated from the thing itself. Further, aside from the jargon of "participation," Plato does not explain the relation between forms and particular things. In reality, it is merely metaphorical to describe the forms as patterns of things; for, what is a genus to one object is a species to a higher class, the same idea will have to be both a form and a particular thing at the same time. Finally, on Plato's account of the forms, we must imagine an intermediate link between the form and the particular object, and so on ad infinitum: there must always be a "third man" between the individual man and the form of man.

For Aristotle, the form is not something outside the object, but rather in the varied phenomena of sense. Real substance, or true being, is not the abstract form, but rather the concrete individual thing. Unfortunately, Aristotle's theory of substance is not altogether consistent with itself. In the Categories the notion of substance tends to be nominalistic (i.e., substance is a concept we apply to things). In the Metaphysics, though, it frequently inclines towards realism (i.e., substance has a real existence in itself). We are also struck by the apparent contradiction in his claims that science deals with universal concepts, and substance is declared to be an individual. In any case, substance is for him a merging of matter into form. The term "matter" is used by Aristotle in four overlapping senses. First, it is the underlying structure of changes, particularly changes of growth and of decay. Secondly, it is the potential which has implicitly the capacity to develop into reality. Thirdly, it is a kind of stuff without specific qualities and so is indeterminate and contingent. Fourthly, it is identical with form when it takes on a form in its actualized and final phase.

The development of potentiality to actuality is one of the most important aspects of Aristotle's philosophy. It was intended to solve the difficulties which earlier thinkers had raised with reference to the beginnings of existence and the relations of the one and many. The actual vs. potential state of things is explained in terms of the causes which act on things. There are four causes:

  1. Material cause, or the elements out of which an object is created;

  2. Efficient cause, or the means by which it is created;

  3. Formal cause, or the expression of what it is;

  4. Final cause, or the end for which it is.

Take, for example, a bronze statue. Its material cause is the bronze itself. Its efficient cause is the sculptor, insofar has he forces the bronze into shape. The formal cause is the idea of the completed statue. The final cause is the idea of the statue as it prompts the sculptor to act on the bronze. The final cause tends to be the same as the formal cause, and both of these can be subsumed by the efficient cause. Of the four, it is the formal and final which is the most important, and which most truly gives the explanation of an object. The final end (purpose, or teleology) of a thing is realized in the full perfection of the object itself, not in our conception of it. Final cause is thus internal to the nature of the object itself, and not something we subjectively impose on it.

God to Aristotle is the first of all substances, the necessary first source of movement who is himself unmoved. God is a being with everlasting life, and perfect blessedness, engaged in never-ending contemplation.
Philosophy of Nature

Aristotle sees the universe as a scale lying between the two extremes: form without matter is on one end, and matter without form is on the other end. The passage of matter into form must be shown in its various stages in the world of nature. To do this is the object of Aristotle's physics, or philosophy of nature. It is important to keep in mind that the passage from form to matter within nature is a movement towards ends or purposes. Everything in nature has its end and function, and nothing is without its purpose. Everywhere we find evidences of design and rational plan. No doctrine of physics can ignore the fundamental notions of motion, space, and time. Motion is the passage of matter into form, and it is of four kinds: (1) motion which affects the substance of a thing, particularly its beginning and its ending; (2) motion which brings about changes in quality; (3) motion which brings about changes in quantity, by increasing it and decreasing it; and (4) motion which brings about locomotion, or change of place. Of these the last is the most fundamental and important.

Aristotle rejects the definition of space as the void. Empty space is an impossibility. Hence, too, he disagrees with the view of Plato and the Pythagoreans that the elements are composed of geometrical figures. Space is defined as the limit of the surrounding body towards what is surrounded. Time is defined as the measure of motion in regard to what is earlier and later. it thus depends for its existence upon motion. If there where no change in the universe, there would be no time. Since it is the measuring or counting of motion, it also depends for its existence on a counting mind. If there were no mind to count, there could be no time. As to the infinite divisibility of space and time, and the paradoxes proposed by Zeno, Aristotle argues that space and time are potentially divisible ad infinitum, but are not actually so divided.

After these preliminaries, Aristotle passes to the main subject of physics, the scale of being. The first thing to notice about this scale is that it is a scale of values. What is higher on the scale of being is of more worth, because the principle of form is more advanced in it. Species on this scale are eternally fixed in their place, and cannot evolve over time. The higher items on the scale are also more organized. Further, the lower items are inorganic and the higher are organic. The principle which gives internal organization to the higher or organic items on the scale of being is life, or what he calls the soul of the organism. Even the human soul is nothing but the organization of the body. Plants are the lowest forms of life on the scale, and their souls contain a nutritive element by which it preserves itself. Animals are above plants on the scale, and their souls contain an appetitive feature which allows them to have sensations, desires, and thus gives them the ability to move. The scale of being proceeds from animals to humans. The human soul shares the nutritive element with plants, and the appetitive element with animals, but also has a rational element which is distinctively our own. The details of the appetitive and rational aspects of the soul are described in the following two sections.

The Soul and Psychology

Soul is defined by Aristotle as the perfect expression or realization of a natural body. From this definition it follows that there is a close connection between psychological states, and physiological processes. Body and soul are unified in the same way that wax and an impression stamped on it are unified. Metaphysicians before Aristotle discussed the soul abstractly without any regard to the bodily environment; this, Aristotle believes, was a mistake. At the same time, Aristotle regards the soul or mind not as the product of the physiological conditions of the body, but as the truth of the body -- the substance in which only the bodily conditions gain their real meaning.

The soul manifests its activity in certain "faculties" or "parts" which correspond with the stages of biological development, and are the faculties of nutrition (peculiar to plants), that of movement (peculiar to animals), and that of reason (peculiar to humans). These faculties resemble mathematical figures in which the higher includes the lower, and must be understood not as like actual physical parts, but like such aspects as convex and concave which we distinguish in the same line. The mind remains throughout a unity: and it is absurd to speak of it, as Plato did, as desiring with one part and feeling anger with another. Sense perception is a faculty of receiving the forms of outward objects independently of the matter of which they are composed, just as the wax takes on the figure of the seal without the gold or other metal of which the seal is composed. As the subject of impression, perception involves a movement and a kind of qualitative change; but perception is not merely a passive or receptive affection. It in turn acts, and, distinguishing between the qualities of outward things, becomes "a movement of the soul through the medium of the body."

The objects of the senses may be either (1) special, (such as colour is the special object of sight, and sound of hearing), (2) common, or apprehended by several senses in combination (such as motion or figure), or (3) incidental or inferential (such as when from the immediate sensation of white we come to know a person or object which is white). There are five special senses. Of these, touch is the must rudimentary, hearing the most instructive, and sight the most ennobling. The organ in these senses never acts directly , but is affected by some medium such as air. Even touch, which seems to act by actual contact, probably involves some vehicle of communication. For Aristotle, the heart is the common or central sense organ. It recognizes the common qualities which are involved in all particular objects of sensation. It is, first, the sense which brings us a consciousness of sensation. Secondly, in one act before the mind, it holds up the objects of our knowledge and enables us to distinguish between the reports of different senses.

Aristotle defines the imagination as "the movement which results upon an actual sensation." In other words, it is the process by which an impression of the senses is pictured and retained before the mind, and is accordingly the basis of memory. The representative pictures which it provides form the materials of reason. Illusions and dreams are both alike due to an excitement in the organ of sense similar to that which would be caused by the actual presence of the sensible phenomenon. Memory is defined as the permanent possession of the sensuous picture as a copy which represents the object of which it is a picture. Recollection, or the calling back to mind the residue of memory, depends on the laws which regulate the association of our ideas. We trace the associations by starting with the thought of the object present to us, then considering what is similar, contrary or contiguous.

Reason is the source of the first principles of knowledge. Reason is opposed to the sense insofar as sensations are restricted and individual, and thought is free and universal. Also, while the senses deals with the concrete and material aspect of phenomena, reason deals with the abstract and ideal aspects. But while reason is in itself the source of general ideas, it is so only potentially. For, it arrives at them only by a process of development in which it gradually clothes sense in thought, and unifies and interprets sense-presentations. This work of reason in thinking beings suggests the question: How can immaterial thought come to receive material things? It is only possible in virtue of some community between thought and things. Aristotle recognizes an active reason which makes objects of thought. This is distinguished from passive reason which receives, combines and compares the objects of thought. Active reason makes the world intelligible, and bestows on the materials of knowledge those ideas or categories which make them accessible to thought. This is just as the sun communicates to material objects that light, without which colour would be invisible, and sight would have no object. Hence reason is the constant support of an intelligible world. While assigning reason to the soul of humans, Aristotle describes it as coming from without, and almost seems to identify it with God as the eternal and omnipresent thinker. Even in humans, in short, reason realizes something of the essential characteristic of absolute thought -- the unity of thought as subject with thought as object.

Ethics, as viewed by Aristotle, is an attempt to find out our chief end or highest good: an end which he maintains is really final. Though many ends of life are only means to further ends, our aspirations and desires must have some final object or pursuit. Such a chief end is universally called happiness. But people mean such different things by the expression that he finds it necessary to discuss the nature of it for himself. For starters, happiness must be based on human nature, and must begin from the facts of personal experience. Thus, happiness cannot be found in any abstract or ideal notion, like Plato's self-existing good. It must be something practical an human. It must then be found in the work and life which is unique to humans. But this is neither the vegetative life we share with plants nor the sensitive existence which we share with animals. It follows therefore that true happiness lies in the active life of a rational being or in a perfect realization and outworking of the true soul and self, continued throughout a lifetime.

Aristotle expands his notion of happiness through an analysis of the human soul which structures and animates a living human organism. The parts of the soul are divided as follows:

Calculative -- Intellectual Virtue


Appetitive -- Moral Virtue


Vegetative -- Nutritional Virtue

The human soul has an irrational element which is shared with the animals, and a rational element which is distinctly human. The most primitive irrational element is the vegetative faculty which is responsible for nutrition and growth. An organism which does this well may be said to have a nutritional virtue. The second tier of the soul is the appetitive faculty which is responsible for our emotions and desires (such as joy, grief, hope and fear). This faculty is both rational and irrational. It is irrational since even animals experience desires. However, it is also rational since humans have the distinct ability to control these desires with the help of reason. The human ability to properly control these desires is called moral virtue, and is the focus of morality. Aristotle notes that there is a purely rational part of the soul, the calculative, which is responsible for the human ability to contemplate, reason logically, and formulate scientific principles. The mastery of these abilities is called intellectual virtue.

Aristotle continues by making several general points about the nature of moral virtues (i.e. desire-regulating virtues). First, he argues that the ability to regulate our desires is not instinctive, but learned and is the outcome of both teaching and practice. Second, he notes that if we regulate our desires either too much or too little, then we create problems. As an analogy, Aristotle comments that, either "excess or deficiency of gymnastic exercise is fatal to strength." Third, he argues that desire-regulating virtues are character traits, and are not to be understood as either emotions or mental faculties.

The core of Aristotle's account of moral virtue is his doctrine of the mean. According to this doctrine, moral virtues are desire-regulating character traits which are at a mean between more extreme character traits (or vices). For example, in response to the natural emotion of fear, we should develop the virtuous character trait of courage. If we develop an excessive character trait by curbing fear too much, then we are said to be rash, which is a vice. If, on the other extreme, we develop a deficient character trait by curbing fear too little, then we are said to be cowardly, which is also a vice. The virtue of courage, then, lies at the mean between the excessive extreme of rashness, and the deficient extreme of cowardice. Aristotle is quick to point out that the virtuous mean is not a strict mathematical mean between two extremes. For example, if eating 100 apples is too many, and eating zero apples is too little, this does not imply that we should eat 50 apples, which is the mathematical mean. Instead, the mean is rationally determined, based on the relative merits of the situation. That is, it is "as a prudent man would determine it." He concludes that it is difficult to live the virtuous life primarily because it is often difficult to find the mean between the extremes.

Most moral virtues, and not just courage, are to be understood as falling at the mean between two accompanying vices. His list may be represented by the following table:

Vice of Deficiency

Virtuous Mean

Vice of Excess
















Want of Ambition

Right Ambition



Good Temper



Friendly Civility


Ironical Depreciation










Just Resentment


The prominent virtue of this list is high-mindedness, which, as being a kind of ideal self-respect, is regarded as the crown of all the other virtues, depending on them for its existence, and itself in turn tending to intensify their force. The list seems to be more a deduction from the formula than a statement of the facts on which the formula itself depends, and Aristotle accordingly finds language frequently inadequate to express the states of excess or defect which his theory involves (for example in dealing with the virtue of ambition). Throughout the list he insists on the "autonomy of will" as indispensable to virtue: courage for instance is only really worthy of the name when done from a love of honour and duty: munificence again becomes vulgarity when it is not exercised from a love of what is right and beautiful, but for displaying wealth.

Justice is used both in a general and in a special sense. In its general sense it is equivalent to the observance of law. As such it is the same thing as virtue, differing only insofar as virtue exercises the disposition simply in the abstract, and justice applies it in dealings with people. Particular justice displays itself in two forms. First, distributive justice hands out honours and rewards according to the merits of the recipients. Second, corrective justice takes no account of the position of the parties concerned, but simply secures equality between the two by taking away from the advantage of the one and adding it to the disadvantage of the other. Strictly speaking, distributive and corrective justice are more than mere retaliation and reciprocity. However, in concrete situations of civil life, retaliation and reciprocity is an adequate formula since such circumstances involve money, depending on a relation between producer and consumer. Since absolute justice is abstract in nature, in the real world it must be supplemented with equity, which corrects and modifies the laws of justice where it falls short. Thus, morality requires a standard which will not only regulate the inadequacies of absolute justice but be also an idea of moral progress.

This idea of morality is given by the faculty of moral insight. The truly good person is at the same time a person of perfect insight, and a person of perfect insight is also perfectly good. Our idea of the ultimate end of moral action is developed through habitual experience, and this gradually frames itself out of particular perceptions. It is the job of reason to apprehend and organize these particular perceptions. However, moral action is never the result of a mere act of the understanding, nor is it the result of a simple desire which views objects merely as things which produce pain or pleasure. We start with a rational conception of what is advantageous, but this conception is in itself powerless without the natural impulse which will give it strength. The will or purpose implied by morality is thus either reason stimulated to act by desire, or desire guided and controlled by understanding. These factors then motivate the willful action. Freedom of the will is a factor with both virtuous choices and vicious choices. Actions are involuntary only when another person forces our action, or if we are ignorant of important details in actions. Actions are voluntary when the originating cause of action (either virtuous or vicious) lies in ourselves.

Moral weakness of the will results in someone does what is wrong, knowing that it is right, and yet follows his desire against reason. For Aristotle, this condition is not a myth, as Socrates supposed it was. The problem is a matter of conflicting moral principles. Moral action may be represented as a syllogism in which a general principle of morality forms the first (i.e. major) premise, while the particular application is the second (i.e. minor) premise. The conclusion, though, which is arrived at through speculation, is not always carried out in practice. The moral syllogism is not simply a matter of logic, but involves psychological drives and desires. Desires can lead to a minor premise being applied to one rather than another of two major premises existing in the agent's mind. Animals, on the other hand, cannot be called weak willed or incontinent since such a conflict of principles is not possible with them.

Pleasure is not to be identified with Good. Pleasure is found in the consciousness of free spontaneous action. It is an invisible experience, like vision, and is always present when a perfect organ acts upon a perfect object. Pleasures accordingly differ in kind, varying along with the different value of the functions of which they are the expression. They are determined ultimately by the judgment of "the good person." Our chief end is the perfect development of our true nature; it thus must be particularly found in the realization of our highest faculty, that is, reason. It is this in fact which constitutes our personality, and we would not be pursuing our own life, but the life of some lower being, if we followed any other aim. Self-love accordingly may be said to be the highest law of morals, because while such self-love may be understood as the selfishness which gratifies a person's lower nature, it may also be, and is rightly, the love of that higher and rational nature which constitutes each person's true self. Such a life of thought is further recommended as that which is most pleasant, most self-sufficient, most continuous, and most consonant with our purpose. It is also that which is most akin to the life of God: for God cannot be conceived as practising the ordinary moral virtues and must therefore find his happiness in contemplation.

Friendship is an indispensable aid in framing for ourselves the higher moral life; if not itself a virtue, it is at least associated with virtue, and it proves itself of service in almost all conditions of our existence. Such results, however, are to be derived not from the worldly friendships of utility or pleasure, but only from those which are founded on virtue. The true friend is in fact a second self, and the true moral value of friendship lies in the fact that the friend presents to us a mirror of good actions, and so intensifies our consciousness and our appreciation of life.


Aristotle does not regard politics as a separate science from ethics, but as the completion, and almost a verification of it. The moral ideal in political administration is only a different aspect of that which also applies to individual happiness. Humans are by nature social beings, and the possession of rational speech (logos) in itself leads us to social union. The state is a development from the family through the village community, an offshoot of the family. Formed originally for the satisfaction of natural wants, it exists afterwards for moral ends and for the promotion of the higher life. The state in fact is no mere local union for the prevention of wrong doing, and the convenience of exchange. It is also no mere institution for the protection of goods and property. It is a genuine moral organization for advancing the development of humans.

The family, which is chronologically prior to the state, involves a series of relations between husband and wife, parent and child, master and slave. Aristotle regards the slave as a piece of live property having no existence except in relation to his master. Slavery is a natural institution because there is a ruling and a subject class among people related to each other as soul to body; however, we must distinguish between those who are slaves by nature, and those who have become slaves merely by war and conquest. Household management involves the acquisition of riches, but must be distinguished from money-making for its own sake. Wealth is everything whose value can be measured by money; but it is the use rather than the possession of commodities which constitutes riches.

Financial exchange first involved bartering. However, with the difficulties of transmission between countries widely separated from each other, money as a currency arose. At first it was merely a specific amount of weighted or measured metal. Afterwards it received a stamp to mark the amount. Demand is the real standard of value. Currency, therefore, is merely a convention which represents the demand; it stands between the producer and the recipient and secures fairness. Usury is an unnatural and reprehensible use of money.

The communal ownership of wives and property as sketched by Plato in the Republic rests on a false conception of political society. For, the state is not a homogeneous unity, as Plato believed, but rather is made up of dissimilar elements. The classification of constitutions is based on the fact that government may be exercised either for the good of the governed or of the governing, and may be either concentrated in one person or shared by a few or by the many. There are thus three true forms of government: monarchy, aristocracy, and constitutional republic. The perverted forms of these are tyranny, oligarchy and democracy. The difference between the last two is not that democracy is a government of the many, and oligarchy of the few; instead, democracy is the state of the poor, and oligarchy of the rich. Considered in the abstract, these six states stand in the following order of preference: monarchy, aristocracy, constitutional republic, democracy, oligarchy, tyranny. But though with a perfect person monarchy would be the highest form of government, the absence of such people puts it practically out of consideration. Similarly, true aristocracy is hardly ever found in its uncorrupted form. It is in the constitution that the good person and the good citizen coincide. Ideal preferences aside, then, the constitutional republic is regarded as the best attainable form of government, especially as it secures that predominance of a large middle class, which is the chief basis of permanence in any state. With the spread of population, democracy is likely to become the general form of government.

Which is the best state is a question that cannot be directly answered. Different races are suited for different forms of government, and the question which meets the politician is not so much what is abstractly the best state, but what is the best state under existing circumstances. Generally, however, the best state will enable anyone to act in the best and live in the happiest manner. To serve this end the ideal state should be neither too great nor too small, but simply self-sufficient. It should occupy a favorable position towards land and sea and consist of citizens gifted with the spirit of the northern nations, and the intelligence of the Asiatic nations. It should further take particular care to exclude from government all those engaged in trade and commerce; "the best state will not make the "working man" a citizen; it should provide support religious worship; it should secure morality through the educational influences of law and early training. Law, for Aristotle, is the outward expression of the moral ideal without the bias of human feeling. It is thus no mere agreement or convention, but a moral force coextensive with all virtue. Since it is universal in its character, it requires modification and adaptation to particular circumstances through equity.

Education should be guided by legislation to make it correspond with the results of psychological analysis, and follow the gradual development of the bodily and mental faculties. Children should during their earliest years be carefully protected from all injurious associations, and be introduced to such amusements as will prepare them for the serious duties of life. Their literary education should begin in their seventh year, and continue to their twenty-first year. This period is divided into two courses of training, one from age seven to puberty, and the other from puberty to age twenty-one. Such education should not be left to private enterprise, but should be undertaken by the state. There are four main branches of education: reading and writing, Gymnastics, music, and painting. They should not be studied to achieve a specific aim, but in the liberal spirit which creates true freemen. Thus, for example, gymnastics should not be pursued by itself exclusively, or it will result in a harsh savage type of character. Painting must not be studied merely to prevent people from being cheated in pictures, but to make them attend to physical beauty. Music must not be studied merely for amusement, but for the moral influence which it exerts on the feelings. Indeed all true education is, as Plato saw, a training of our sympathies so that we may love and hate in a right manner.


Art is defined by Aristotle as the realization in external form of a true idea, and is traced back to that natural love of imitation which characterizes humans, and to the pleasure which we feel in recognizing likenesses. Art however is not limited to mere copying. It idealizes nature and completes its deficiencies: it seeks to grasp the universal type in the individual phenomenon. The distinction therefore between poetic art and history is not that the one uses meter, and the other does not. The distinction is that while history is limited to what has actually happened, poetry depicts things in their universal character. And, therefore, "poetry is more philosophical and more elevated than history." Such imitation may represent people either as better or as worse than people usually are, or it may neither go beyond nor fall below the average standard. Comedy is the imitation of the worse examples of humanity, understood however not in the sense of absolute badness, but only in so far as what is low and ignoble enters into what is laughable and comic.

Tragedy, on the other hand, is the representation of a serious or meaningful, rounded or finished, and more or less extended or far-reaching action -- a representation which is effected by action and not mere narration. It is fitted by portraying events which excite fear and pity in the mind of the observer to purify or purge these feelings and extend and regulate their sympathy. It is thus a homeopathic curing of the passions. Insofar as art in general universalizes particular events, tragedy, in depicting passionate and critical situations, takes the observer outside the selfish and individual standpoint, and views them in connection with the general lot of human beings. This is similar to Aristotle's explanation of the use of orgiastic music in the worship of Bacchas and other deities: it affords an outlet for religious fervour and thus steadies one's religious sentiments.


3. Aristotle: A Quick Profile

Aristotle depicted by Raphael
Born at Stagira in Macedonia (in northern Greece), the son of Nicomachus, Aristotle was together with Plato the most influential philosopher of the western tradition. At age 17 he entered Plato's Academy in Athens, and remained there until Plato's death. Aristotle then accepted the invitation of Hermias to reside at Assos. Upon the death of Hermias (whose niece, Pythias, he married) in 345, Aristotle went to Mytilene on the island of Lesbos. Between 343/2 and 340 he acted as the tutor to the young Alexander the Great. In 335 he returned to Athens where he founded a school, the Lyceum. Here he organized and conducted research on many subjects, and built the first great library of antiquity. After the death of Pythias he lived with Herpyllis, by whom he had a son, Nicomachus. On the death of Alexander in 325 anti-Macedonian feeling in Athens, caused Aristotle to retire to Chalcis where he died on the Aegean island of Euboea, now Ewoia in 322 B.C.

Aristotle depicted by Raphael, holding his Ethics:
detail from the Vatican fresco The School of Athens, 1510 – 1511.

Inland from Stagira was the semi-Greek kingdom of Macedon, with which Aristotle's family was closely connected. Aristotle's father, for instance, had been court physician to the Macedonian king Amyntas II. Aristotle lost both parents while a child and was brought up by a friend of the family. He is supposed to have spoken with a lisp and to have been something of a dandy.

Of the two great philosophers of Greece, Plato and Aristotle, the latter was the one who relied on observation.

Raphael's The School of Athens shows the two great philosophers in the centre of the painting, surrounded by the other great Greeks, with Plato holding his hand upright as if to indicate, "Look to the perfection of the heavens for truth," while Aristotle holds his arm straight out, implying "look around you at what is if you would know the truth."

We shall look deeper in Aristotle's ideas below.

At the age of 17 Aristotle travelled to Athens for a college education and after Plato returned from Syracuse, the young man joined Plato's Academy, where he studied assiduously. Eventually he was to become by far the most renowned of all the pupils of Plato. Plato called him "the intelligence of the school."

When Plato died in 347 B.C., Aristotle left the school. The reason he gave was that he disapproved of the growing emphasis on mathematics and theory in the Academy and the continuing decline in natural philosophy. However, it is possible that he may have been displeased that Plato, on his deathbed, designated his nephew, an undistinguished person, as his successor, passing over the merits of Aristotle. It is also true that Athens and Macedon were enemies at the time and Aristotle may have felt uneasily conscious of being considered pro-Macedonian. In any case Aristotle found it expedient to set out upon a journey that carried him to various parts of the Greek world, particularly to Asia Minor. While there he married and engaged in the study of biology and natural history, always his chief love. In 342 B.C. he was called to Macedon. The son of Amyntas II had succeeded to the throne of Macedon as Philip II while Aristotle was at the Academy, and now the king wanted the son of his father's physician back at court. The purpose was to install him as tutor for his fourteen-year-old son, Alexander the Great. Aristotle held this position for several years. Since Alexander was to become Alexander the Great, the conqueror of Persia, we have the spectacle of the greatest soldier of ancient times being tutored by the greatest thinker. In 336 B.C. Philip II was assassinated and his son succeeded as Alexander III. Alexander had no further time for education so Aristotle left Macedon the next year and went back to Athens while Alexander went on to invade the Persian Empire in a great conquering campaign. Aristotle's nephew, Callisthenes, accompanied Alexander, but Aristotle's influence over his erstwhile pupil was not very great for in 327 B.C. Callisthenes was executed by the increasingly megalomaniac monarch.

Meanwhile, in Athens, Aristotle founded a school of his own, the Lyceum, so called because Aristotle lectured in a hall near the temple to Apollo Lykaios (Apollo, the Wolf-God). It was also called the "peripatetic school" (walk about) because Aristotle, at least on occasion, lectured to students while walking in the school's garden. He also built up a collection of manuscripts a very early example of a "university library." It was this which eventually served as the kernel for the great Library at Alexandria. The school continued under Aristotle's directorship quite successfully, emphasizing natural philosophy. In 323 B.C., however, the news arrived of the death of Alexander the Great in Babylon. Since Aristotle was well known to have been Alexander's tutor, he feared that an anti Macedonian reaction in Athens might lead to trouble. And, indeed, the accusation of "impiety" was raised. Aristotle had no mind to suffer the fate of Socrates. Saying he would not allow Athens to "sin twice against philosophy" he prudently retired to Chalcis, his mother's hometown, and died there the next year.

Aristotle's lectures were collected into nearly 150 volumes and represent almost a one-man encyclopaedia of the knowledge of the times, much of it representing the original thought and observation of Aristotle himself. Nor was it confined entirely to science, for Aristotle dealt with politics, literary criticism, and ethics. Altogether, of the volumes attributed to him, some fifty have survived (not all of which are certainly authentic), a survival record second only to that of Plato. This survival came about through a fortunate chance. Many of his manuscripts were found in a pit in Asia Minor about 80 B.C. by men in the army of the Roman general Sulla. They were then brought to Rome and recopied.

The one field for which Aristotle is not noted is mathematics, but even here he may be credited with a glancing blow, for he is the virtual founder of the systematic study of logic, which is allied to mathematics. He developed, in great and satisfying detail, the art of reasoning from statement to necessary conclusion and thereby demonstrating the validity of a line of thought. His system stood without major change until the nineteenth-century development of symbolic logic by Boole, which converted logic in to a branch of mathematics in form as well as spirit.

Aristotle's most successful scientific writings were those on biology. He was a careful and meticulous observer who fascinated by the task of classifying animal species and arranging them into hierarchies. He dealt with over five hundred animal species in this way and dissected nearly fifty of them. His mode of classification was reasonable and, in some cases, strikingly modern. He was particularly interested in sea life and observed that the dolphin brought forth its young alive and nourished the fetus by means of a special organ called a placenta. No fish did this, but all mammals did, so Aristotle classed the dolphin with the beasts of the field rather than with the fish of the sea. His successors did not follow his lead, however, and it took two thousand years for biologists to catch up to Aristotle in this respect.

It was J. Muller who finally confirmed Aristotle in this respect. Aristotle also studied viviparous sharks, those that bear live young -- but without a mammalian placenta. He also noted the odd ability of the torpedo fish to stun its prey though, of course, he knew nothing of the electric shock with which it managed it. He was also wrong on occasion, as when he denied sexuality in plants. Nineteen centuries were to pass before Alpini was to correct this particular error.

His formation of a hierarchy of living things led him irresistibly toward the idea that animals represented a chain of progressive change, a sort of evolution. Other Greek philosophers groped similarly in this direction. However, barring any knowledge as to the physical mechanism whereby evolutionary changes could be brought about, such theories invariably became mystical. A rational theory of evolution had to await Darwin, 2200 years after the time of Aristotle.

Aristotle studied the developing embryo of the chick and the complex stomach of cattle. He decided that no animal had both tusks and horns, and that no single hoofed animal had horns. But his intuition sometimes led him astray. He believed the heart was the centre of life and considered the brain merely a cooling organ for the blood.

In physics Aristotle was far less successful than in biology, perhaps because he was too Platonic. He accepted the heavenly spheres of Eudoxus and Callippus and even added further to them, reaching a total of 54. He seemed to think of the spheres as having an actual physical existence whereas Eudoxus probably thought of them as imaginary aids to calculation, as we consider the lines of latitude and longitude we draw on a map. Aristotle also accepted the four elements of Empedocles but restricted them to Earth itself. He suggested a fifth element "aether," of which all the heavens were composed. (We still use phrases such as "ethereal heights" today.)

This line of reasoning led him to agree with the Pythagoreans that Earth and heaven were subjected to two different sets of natural law. On Earth all things were changeable and corrupt, while in the heavens all was permanent and unchanging. On Earth the four elements each had its own place, and motion was an attempt to reach that place. Earth was in the centre, water above it, air above that, and fire highest of all the earthly substances. Therefore an object composed largely of earth, such as a rock, would, if suspended in air, fall downward, while bubbles of air trapped under water would move upward. Again rain fell, but fire rose.

It also seemed to Aristotle that the heavier an object was, the more eagerly it would strive to achieve its proper place since the heaviness was the manifestation of its eagerness to return. Hence a heavier object would fall more rapidly than a lighter one. Nineteen centuries later, a reconsideration of this problem by Galileo was to lead to momentous consequences. The motion of heavenly objects, on the other hand, was no attempt to get anywhere. It was a steady, permanent motion, even and circular.

Aristotle, apparently, was not an experimentalist for all that he was a close observer. He observed that rocks fell more quickly than feathers, but he made no attempt to arrange an observation of the falling of rocks of graded weight. Furthermore, neither he nor any other ancient scholar properly appreciated the importance of precise, quantitative measurement. This was not mere perversity on their part, for the state of instrumentation was rudimentary indeed in ancient times and there were few clear methods of making accurate measurements. In particular, they could not measure small intervals of time accurately, a deficiency that was to remain for two thousand years until the time of Huygens.

Aristotle rejected Democritus' atomism, dooming that concept through ancient and medieval times. On the other hand, he accepted the Pythagorean notion of the roundness of Earth, presenting his reasoning in a fashion that remains valid today. The most telling argument was that as one travels north, new stars appear at the northern horizon while old ones disappear at the southern. If Earth were flat, all stars would be equally visible from all points on its surface. It was Aristotle's championing of this view that kept it alive through the darkest days that were to follow.

Aristotle's system of philosophy was never as influential in ancient times as Plato's. Indeed, Aristotle's works may not have been published for some centuries after his death. After the fall of Rome, his work was largely lost to Europe (only Organon, his work on logic, was saved) while Plato's works were, for the most part, retained. However, Aristotle's books survived among the Arabs, who valued them highly.

Christian Europe regained Aristotle from the Arabs, translating his books into Latin in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. From that time Aristotle replaced Plato as the Philosopher. His views came to be regarded as possessing an almost divine authority, so that if Aristotle said it was so, it was so. By a queer fatality, it almost seemed as though his statements were most accepted when they were most incorrect.

This cannot be blamed on Aristotle, who was himself no believer in blind obedience to authority. Nevertheless, following the era of over-adulation, he became the very symbol of wrongness, and when the Scientific Revolution took place in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, its first victories involved the overthrow of Aristotelian physics. In the centuries since, Aristotle has, as a consequence, too often been viewed as an enemy of science, whereas actually he was one of the truly great scientists of all time and even his wrongness was rational. No man should be blamed for the stubborn orthodoxy of those who many centuries later insist they speak in his name.

Aristotle's Teachings

The Greeks made a decisive choice in favour of the organismic viewpoint of nature. This choice was at least as Greek in spirit as the so-called of the Ionians. Some historians of science have tried desperately to present scientific rationalism as the only genuine exhibition of the Greek spirit. These historians have tried to support their case by claiming the influence of factors, such as religious ideas penetrating Hellas from the eastern shores of the Mediterranean, which were just as foreign to the Greek mind. In fact, long before religious ideas gained significant influence, the greatest of the Greek thinkers settled on the primacy of the organismic view, mainly because they found it to provide the type of intelligibility that best satisfied the aspirations of the Greek mind.

As Greek intellectual development after Plato continued through its phases, its formers, with great unanimity, adhered to organicism. Aristotle is very typical. A resolute critic of Plato's main philosophical construct, the theory of ideas, Aristotle remained nonetheless faithful to the basic tenet of the Socratic program: nature was to be understood as something like man himself -- moving toward goals, striving toward the best possible arrangement, in short, acting like an organism. He was convinced that the universe was supremely a living being both in its entirety and in its parts.

In fact, it is in Aristotle's Physics that one finds the first simultaneous occurrence of the terms microcosmos and megacosmos (macrocosmos), terms which were to serve as the characteristic stamp on every organismic theory about the universe until the very modern times. In the eighth book of the Physics, Aristotle reviewed several objections to a fundamental doctrine of his, the eternity of motion. According to these objections, motion need not always be caused by another motion but could at times be preceded by absolute rest. For proof, one of the arguments refers to the case of living beings, to human consciousness and animal behaviour in particular.

...the animal...we say, moves itself; therefore, if an animal is ever in a state of rest, we have thing in which motion can be produced from the thing itself, and not from without. We see nothing like this in the case of inaminate things, which are always set in motion by something else from without: the animal, on the other hand, we say, moves itself; therefore, if an animal es ever in a state of abosolute rest, we have a motionless thing in which motion can be produced from the thing itself, and not from without. Now if this can occur in an animal, why should not the same be true also of the universe as a whole? If it can occur in a small world [microcosmos] it could also occur in a great one [megacosmos]...

The conclusions of this argument were totally contrary to the foundations of Aristotle's system. Nevertheless, all Aristotle found to criticize in this argument, was the conclusion alone and not the organismic analogy on which it rested. Aristotle offers no objection and finds no fault with the general organismic principle that allows one to move without any qualification from the small world of an animal to the large world of the inanimate universe. It was a principle that had to appear to him as basically sound. As a consequence, Aristotle, in general so reluctant to praise the intelligence of his opponents, qualifies the objection based on this principle as one he saw to "present more difficulty than the others" for his doctrine of the eternity of motion. Obviously he realized that the objection had carried the battle to his own grounds.

When faced with objections based manifestly on principles diametrically opposite to his own, Aristotle's phrases betrayed hardly any hesitancy or surprise. Thus in a highly revealing passage of the second book of the Physics Aristotle drew a sharp contrast between the early physics and what physics really ought to be. According to the former, nature does not work for the sake of something or because it is better one way than another; it rather works of necessity, that is, in a regularly repeated pattern of sequences. The necessity and regularity of his predecessors' physics had, however, been dependent on chance, and Aristotle eagerly seized on this obvious inconsistency. Chance, Aristotle argued, does not repeat things in a regular fashion. Regularity can be assigned only to purposeful action, which, as he contended, always works for an end and originates from the particular nature that is acting. It was at this point that Aristotle reaffirmed the basic goal of Socrates' arguments: the restoration of unity between man and nature in an organic whole. The declaration of a perfect parallelism between the way man acts and the manner in which nature operates could not be more explicit:

As in human operations, so in natural processes; and as in processes, so in human operations (unless something interferes). Human operations are for an end, hence natural processes are so too.". .

To Aristotle, the "physical method," as he referred to Democritus' approach to nature (mechanism), failed in this most essential aspect because it tried to explain things and processes by decomposing them into their parts leaving aside the aspect of their wholeness. But, as Aristotle insisted time and again, basic information about objects, living and nonliving alike, could be obtained only by a method that concentrated on the wholeness in things and processes. Whether an animal or a couch is to be explained, the investigation should take its start from a definition of the whole, a definition that will shed light on the role of organs or parts played in the whole.

For it is not enough to say what are the stuffs out of which an animal is formed, to state, for instance, that it is made of fire or earth -- if we were discussing a couch or the like, we should try to determine its form rather than its matter (e.g. bronze or wood), or if not, we should give the matter of the whole.

... For the formal nature is of greater importance than the material nature...

By stressing the priority of the whole over the parts instead of treating the whole merely as a sum of the parts, Aristotle meant, in fact, that

‘For the formal nature is of greater importance than the material nature...’

Or, in other words, the study of nature is to be dominated by the idea expressing the coordination of parts in the whole, which is the principle of organism. Believing that animate and inanimate beings alike have coordinated parts, Aristotle lowered the dividing wall between the two domains to such an extent that comparisons between the living and non-living became the most naturally used device in his writings on natural science. Speaking of the merits of the study of animals, Aristotle was highly elated about the teleology displayed in the animal world and concluded:

‘...the true object of architecture is not bricks, mortar, or timber, but the house; and so the principal object of natural philosophy is not the material elements, but their composition, and the totality of the substance, independently of which they have no existence...’

Although modern natural science is reluctant to speak in the same breath of bricks and animals, Aristotle saw a basic justification for doing so in the wholeness allegedly present in any object. Of this holistic approach to the study of nature Aristotle stated in the most categorical terms that it is precisely there that the "physical" method and the "true" investigation of nature part ways. When refuting the opinions of Anaximenes, Anaxagoras, and Democritus on the flatness and motion of Earth, Aristotle tells us

‘In general, our quarrel with those who speak of movements in this way cannot be confined to the parts; it concerns the whole universe...’

Once the wholeness of an object is grasped, said Aristotle, its properties and parts will readily reveal themselves. The golden key to the wholeness or nature of a thing consists in detecting its spontaneous motion. Implicit in this spontaneity is the goal of the motion, which in turn lays bare the nature of the thing in motion.

All the things mentioned [things that exist by nature] plainly differ from things which are not constituted by nature. For each of them has within itself a principle of motion and of stationariness (in respect place, or of growth and decrease, or by way of alteration).

As opposed to products of crafts, the beings "constituted" or formed by nature, animals, plants, earth, fire, air, and water have within themselves the beginning of movement:

All natural bodies and magnitudes we hold to be, as such, capable of locomotion; for nature, we say, is their principle of movement.8

Formed by nature they move toward their respective ends, and the end of such a natural motion is identical with the purpose for which the thing exists.

...whenever there is plainly some final end, to which a motion tends should nothing stand in the way, we always say that the one is for the sake of the other...

Motion, nature, organism, and teleology, therefore, were simply different aspects of one basic viewpoint, in which locomotion, qualitative change, the growth of the living, and the healing of the sick were treated on the same footing. Having rejected the possibility of a regress to infinity, Aristotle thought he could readily show that if there is anything at all to exist, its motion, the primordial motion, should be a natural one. On the other hand, if the first motion

‘was natural, careful consideration will show that there was already a world.’

This statement, directed against the notion of atoms whirling in space in every direction before the present configuration of things came to take shape, should forcefully intimate the multitude and sweep of conclusions that Aristotle derived from the concept of natural motion. After all, his universe was a "huge nature" of which all parts were moving, striving, and yearning toward their respective ends.

In fact, Aristotle needed only the distinction between the two types of natural motion, circular and straight, to be ready to tell us what it is like to be a cosmos.

First, the nature of circular motion proved for him that the cosmos must be finite.

Second, this finite universe is divided into two distinct regions, the upper part, or the region of celestial spheres, where the circular motion reigns supreme, and the region interior to the orbit of the moon (sub-luminary) filled with ordinary matter whose nature is to move up or down.

Third, since motion reveals the nature or substance of things, the celestial spheres and bodies, stars and planets, must be composed of a material as different from ordinary matter, as circular motion is from rectilinear. The ether, as this heavenly substance is called, is therefore a material whose nature is to issue in a uniform circular motion.

Fourth, it also follows from the Aristotelian analysis of uniform circular motion that the ether is unalterable, suffers neither growth nor diminution, and has no beginning or end, which is to say that it can be neither generated nor corrupted.

Fifth, to show that only one such substance can exist in the universe, Aristotle drew on the concept of nature and purpose and declared that a second substance of this type would be as pointless as "a shoe is pointless when it is not worn. But God and Nature create nothing that is pointless."

Aristotle's wizardry in squeezing out a long list of conclusions from one basic proposition is astonishing but hardly convincing. He presents his argument that the primary body, or ether, cannot be infinitely extended in no less than six variations. The great effort expended was superfluous, however, for as it turned out, the "nature" of any of the four elements could provide for Aristotle a specious argument against the infinity of the universe. Characteristically, according to him, one of the reasons for discarding the concept of an infinite number of atoms moving in infinite space was that in infinite space no natural motion can take place, because in infinite space no place or point can be assigned unambiguously as the endpoint of any object's motion.

Since the nature of a body determines the pattern or the direction of its motion, it follows that all Earth would move of itself toward the same place, which is the centre of the universe, and all fire would always move upward toward the circumference of the world. The weighty problem of the multiplicity of worlds is thereby readily "solved" in a reasoning, the parts of which are as tightly interlocking as the parts of any organism:

For either we must refuse to admit the identical nature of the simple bodies in the various universes, or, admitting this, we must make the centre and the extremity one as suggested. This being so, it follows that there cannot be more worlds than one.

Aristotle took pains to emphasize that distances between worlds, however large, could change the nature of things and their natural orientations. In other words quantitative considerations cannot negate the conclusions derived from the analysis of the behaviour of an organism. Now if the world is an immense but finite and unique organism, it is only natural that all matter available in the universe should be coordinated to that "one, and unique, and complete" system, or else nature would have produced something to no purpose, which is unacceptable. Therefore no places, nor void, nor time exist beyond the limits of the universe, for the existence of any one of these would presuppose the existence of a natural body distinct from the unique cosmos.

The concept of "nature" secures for the world not only its uniqueness and finiteness, but also a life of perfection. The highest degree of life in the cosmos resides in the sphere of the ether:

...this motion, being perfect, contains those imperfect motions which have a limit and a cessation, having itself no beginning or end, but unceasing through the infinity of time. ... Further, it is unaffected by any mortal discomfort, and, in addition, effortless...

as should be with a uniform circular motion. But for life to be perfect, it must contain whatever "is present in the lowest stage of animal life." Therefore, like animals, the heavens must have front and back, left and right, above and below. The three-dimensionality of space is, in fact, just a corollary of the motion of living bodies, that is, bodies that have the principle of motion in themselves. The vertical direction is a consequence of growth that is from above, and the two horizontal directions are the results of locomotion that is from right to left (the right being the more noble side) and of the sensations that are from the front. Now since

the heaven is animate and possesses a principle of movement, clearly the heaven must also exhibit above and below, right and left. ... We must think of the world as of something in which right differs from left in shape as well as in other respects, which subsequently is included in a sphere.

The direction of the revolution of the skies shows, therefore, that the celestial hemisphere seen in the northern latitudes is really the lower half of the universe, the southern pole of the skies being the top of the cosmos. Hence, those who live in the southern regions are in the upper hemisphere and to the right, while we are in the lower and to the left.

An absolutely valid coordinate system is indeed one of the consequences of viewing the world an as organism. What is more, the three perpendicular directions, being corollaries of life and motion, are not even of the same "dignity." The vertical direction is the most important, since the growth that manifests it can be found in every living thing, whereas the horizontal directions are of lesser rank because they cannot be discerned as basic direction of motion or growth in every living thing, such as a plant.

In the Aristotelian system the world taken as an organism revealed its features with alarming ease once its basic striving or nature had been defined. With a tour de force almost unparalleled in the history of science Aristotle showed in a single breath-taking page of On the Heavens, why the world should consist of different parts and why these parts should be the very same parts we actually observe in the world.

His seductive, a priori account of the main features of the universe reveals in its true nature the liberties that an organismic type of physics unavoidably takes in its approach to nature. Some details are especially worth considering if one is to obtain a close-up view of the dubious procedures that physical science is forced to adopt when the universe is viewed as an organism and when motion is believed to unravel the nature of things with dazzling ease. Thus Aristotle declared that the outermost shell of the cosmos is by necessity spherical, for it is made of divine substance and whatever is divine must be circular. It must also be perfectly smooth, for otherwise there would be "places" beyond the limiting circle and that would be tantamount to a contradiction in terms.

The direction of the revolution of the heavens is not haphazard either, because "... nothing which concerns the eternal can be a matter of chance or spontaneity..." In other words the actual direction of this revolution should be accepted as a right to left movement, for right is superior to left. But can the fact be an explanation of the fact itself? Very much so, runs Aristotle's answer, "Supposing that nature is ordered in the best way possible, this may stand as the reason of the fact mentioned."

The invariable speed of the heavenly revolution too is but an aspect of its eternal nature. Since a decrease of speed is a loss of power, Aristotle argued that such a loss could not take place in the heavens composed of the ether, a substance which by definition was not subject to decay of any sort. On a similar basis is decided the question of the composition of the stars too. If there is a body whose nature is to move in a circle, it is only logical to suppose, the argument runs, that the stars, which have a circular motion, are made of that substance, which again by definition is the ether. On such ground one can also readily discern, so Aristotle believed, whether the stars move round the heavens in the manner of progression observable in living beings. To resolve this question so strongly conditioned by the organismic approach, Aristotle, of course, had to resort to organismic analogies to clinch his proof.

If the stars moved in such a way, he argued, nature would have provided them with organs of motion closely resembling those of the animals. But nature, which provides so generously for even the lower types of being, seems to have made the stars as different as possible from creatures that are endowed with various organs of motion. Thus the stars are spherical because a sphere, which is best suited for motion in the same place, is the least suited to progression

For while of all shapes the sphere is the most convenient for movement in one place, making possible, as it does, the swiftest and most self-contained motion, for forward movement it is the most unsuitable least of all resembling shapes which are self-moved, in that it has no dependent or projecting part, as a rectilinear figure has, and is in fact as far as possible removed in shape from ambulatory bodies.

Not every motion in the heavens, however, has the apparent simplicity and uniformity of the stars. It was in fact impossible to avoid facing the question of fitting the complicated motion of planets into the divine simplicity of the heavens. In an organismic explanation of the world this gravest of all questions that ancient astronomers grappled with presents no difficulty at all. Aristotle warned:

We think of the stars as mere bodies and as units with a serial order indeed but entirely inanimate; but we should rather conceive them as enjoying life and action. On this view the facts cease to appear surprising.

Thus Aristotle, to explain the irregularities of planetary motions, fell back on one of his stock illustrative examples: the various phases in the progress of a sick organism toward health. The closer one is to health, goes the narrative, the fewer steps are needed to reach it. One individual may be healthy without any exercise, another may need only a little walking, a third might have to exercise strenuously, and a fourth may simply never become healthy despite tremendous exertions. Now, since the case of planets is taken without any second thought to be analogous to that of animals and plants striving for health, it is easy to see, contended Aristotle, that the farther a planet is from the sphere of the stars, the region of perfect life, the more cumbersome would be its motion. Clearly, if difficult problems could be solved with such ease, one could hardly feel doubt about the merits of the solution.

However, one must admit that Aristotle was extremely consistent in claiming that the errors of his predecessors on Earth's immobility, place, and shape were due to their ignorance of the concept of natural motion. In other words, he took them to task for not approaching the problems of geophysics from an organismic viewpoint. This was particularly true of the Pythagoreans, who preferred mathematical notions and geometrical patterns to organismic analogies. For them Earth was revolving around the central fire, the function of which was, in their belief, to protect the most noble part of the cosmos: its geometrical centre. But Aristotle quickly retorted that

... it is better to conceive of the cae of the whole heaven as analogous to that of animals, in which the center [or heart] of the animal and that of the body are different.

Therefore he concluded on a markedly triumphant note that it is not the mathematical centre of the world that should hold the place of honour, but rather its true centre. Where this true centre might be, however, can be established in the framework of an organismic physics only through an analysis based on the natural motion of bodies. On such grounds, an abstract geometrical point obviously could not compete with the massive body of Earth for the central position in the universe. For could an abstract point display "strivings" and "affections," those supreme signs of intelligibility?

The same attitude, emphasizing invariably the primacy of organismic concepts and their primordial intelligibility, dominated Aristotle's refutation of the geophysical views of the other pre-Socratic philosophers. Aristotle claimed that those who like Thales let Earth rest on water evidently did not understand the nature of water, which is not supposed to carry any heavier body such as Earth. Those who stated that a huge vortex keeps Earth in the middle failed to see, he remarked, that if there is a motion by constraint, there should be a prior natural motion. Those who invoked the principle of indifference to account for the immobility of Earth did not fare much better in Aristotle's eyes. They reasoned that an object situated at the centre and related equally to the extremes in every direction can have no impulse to move in any specific direction. In fact, they compared the situation of such an object with that of a man violently but equally hungry and thirsty, standing at the same distance from food and drink and unable to decide in which direction to move.

Aristotle, however, rejected this apparently so "organismic" reasoning on the ground that it is not organismic enough. A consistently organismic explanation, he warned, cannot ignore the basic strivings of all types of matter. True, he admitted, a heavy body, such as stone, has such a completely natural indifference to moving toward the periphery. Such is not the case, however, with the light bodies, air and fire, which show an innate tendency to move toward the periphery of the universe, all whose parts are equidistant from Earth. Therefore, concluded Aristotle, Earth's rest at the centre of the universe should be taken as a consequence of Earth's nature and not of its position there.

Aristotle could not leave this subject without making a remark that brings out vividly how the intuitive, all-embracing "intelligibility" of the organismic approach can deprive science of the best source of understanding, the benefits of judicious observation. One condition for making such an observation is clearly one's ability to concentrate his attention on the thing or phenomenon to be observed -- in other words, to isolate it from anything merely accidental or circumstantial. The organismic approach to nature has no patience with such a methodical isolation of inanimate things from their surroundings and from one another.

For as long as the concept of organism reigns supreme in physical science, things in nature are viewed as organically interconnected, and the notion of an isolated part becomes basically deficient. His opponents, Aristotle claimed, kept considering only isolated aspects of an organic whole and this he found an inadmissible procedure.


4. Aristotle and the Birth of Biology
By Robert Adler

‘[W]hen we turn to the plants and animals that perish, we find ourselves better able to come to a knowledge of them, for we are  inhabitants of the same Earth. Anyone who is willing to take the necessary trouble can learn a great deal about all the species that exist.’

-Aristotle, The Parts of Animals

Plato called him "The Mind." His fellow students at the Academy called him "The Reader"-not necessarily a compliment, since philosophers were not supposed to dirty their hands, even by reading. As an Academician he followed Plato for many years in arguing that the world we perceive is just a crude image of the perfect and eternal world of ideas. But in his late thirties, probably when he left Athens to return to his native Macedonia, Aristotle (384 B.C.-322 B.C.) stopped searching for Truth through philosophical disputation alone and instead sought a different kind of knowledge through the patient observation of hawks and honeybees, dolphins and dogfish, and in the blood and stench of the dissecting table. There, face-to-face with nature's abundance and variety, he became the first to grope toward a scientific classification and understanding of living things-not through preconceived ideas, but on their own terms.

Aristotle's father, Nicomachus, was a physician at the court of Amyntas II of Macedon. So, as a child, Aristotle may have been ex-posed to medicine as both a body of knowledge and a hands-on practice. Both his parents died when he was young, however, so he could not have received more than initial training as a physician. At about the age of seventeen, Aristotle went to Athens to study at Plato's Academy. He stayed there for twenty years, evolving from a gifted student to a leading philosopher probing the nature of reality, knowledge, logic, and causality. It's significant that Aristotle was an Ionian. He seems to have absorbed the spirit of the great naturalistic philosophers who studied and taught there centuries before he was born. Thales and his followers had tried to explain the cosmos through natural causes rather than through myths, and had looked for the basis of things not in the whims of the gods, but within nature. The Athenian philosophers of Aristotle's day viewed the Ionian philosophers as naive, because they believed in the reality of what they saw rather than in the pure products of reason.

Aristotle left both the Academy and Athens in 340 B.C., at about the same time that Plato died. Anti-Macedonian feelings were being whipped up in Athens by the fiery orator, Demosthenes, leading Aristotle to stay away for twelve years. While in exile at the court of Hermias in Asia Minor, he married the ruler's niece Pythias. The couple and their daughter moved to the island of Lesbos, where Aristotle seems to have begun his studies of the animal kingdom, observing the creatures found on and around the island. He may have been assisted by Theophrastus, a native of the island, who would go on to complement Aristotle's study of animals with his own study and classification of plants. Famously, Aristotle spent three years tutoring Phillip of Macedon's son, soon to be known as Alexander the Great.

Aristotle was fifty years old when he returned to Athens, by then under the control of Alexander. He did not go back to the Academy, but instead founded his own school of philosophy, at the Lyceum. There he taught many subjects, but also continued his studies of animals. Aristotle eventually produced a series of books that form the foundation of biology. The most remarkable is his Historic Animalium, which touches on the physical structure and lifestyles of hundreds of kinds of animals-how they breed and reproduce, where they are found, and how they interact. He accompanied this with more specialized books including De Partibus Animalium, which compares the anatomy and functional physiology of animals, De Motu Animalium and De Incessu Animalium, dealing with how animals move, De Generatione Animalium, which traces how animals develop and grow, and De Anima, in which he explored what differentiates living and nonliving things.

As a biologist, Aristotle was not afraid to get his hands dirty. He was the first to systematically compile all he could from previous observers, not just philosophers, but fishermen, farmers, travellers, and other people with first-hand knowledge of animals. Even more importantly, he spent years patiently observing, studying, and dissecting animals. In all he described nearly six hundred species, including insects, crustaceans, fish, amphibians, reptiles, mammals, and birds. The quality of his observation is remarkable. He discovered, for example, that the blind mole has a hidden eye; that despite their male-like genitalia, female hyenas are not hermaphrodites; and that among river cat-fish, it's the male that takes care of the young. He studied honeybees in great detail, trying to puzzle out. how they reproduce. In the process, he seems to have been the first, by 2,100 years, to notice their dance language.

It was in his writings on biology that Aristotle most clearly put observation above theory. After presenting his conclusions about how bees reproduce, he added, "But the facts have not been satisfactorily ascertained, and if ever they are, then credence must be given to observation rather than to theory, and to theory only in so far as it agrees with what is observed." He also broke ranks with his Ionian forebears by shifting his focus from how things came to be to how they actually are. By immersing himself in the real-life, flesh-and-blood study of living things, he distanced himself enormously from his predecessors and his teachers. Socrates had said, "I decided to take refuge from the confusion of the senses in argument to determine the truth of reality," Plato condemned the old philosophers to be reborn as birds or fish because they "paid attention to the things in the heavens but in their simplicity supposed that the surest evidence in these matters is that of the eye."

Aristotle even rose above his own work. In the field of logic, he was the master classifier. He invented "the law of the excluded middle"-specifying that a single category cannot embody a given quality and its opposite. This works wonderfully- well with numbers-they're either even or odd, prime or compound-and in formal logic. But it runs into trouble in the real world. Chairs blur into couches, orange drifts into yellow; there are birds that don't fly and mammals that do. Aristotle wanted to classify- all living things-he saw that as a first step toward making biology a true science. But he readied that he could not sort animals out logically, as if they were coins minted from a set of predetermined moulds. Instead, over the course of many years, he compiled similarities and differences, noted signs of close or distant relationships, and tried to make out nature's own groupings. He saw that groups of species share certain important characteristics-they sport feathers or scales, are warm- or cold-blooded, live only in the water or only on land, reproduce by laying eggs or giving birth. From such widely shared features, Aristotle identified many of the major classes of animals we recognize today. His reliance on natural rather than artificial groupings allowed him to classify many species correctly. He realized, for example, that whales and dolphins are not fishes but mammals, and, with surprising objectivity, that apes and humans are closely related.

Of course, Aristotle could not make progress without some theory. From his studies of physics, he placed great emphasis on the qualities of heat and cold. At times this was helpful, for example leading him to use warm- or cold-bloodedness as a defining feature of animals. But in other areas it led him astray. For example, he thought that the primary function of the lungs was to cool the body. He could not completely free himself from the Platonic idea of perfection, and tried to line up animals from the least to the most perfect. And he came to believe that there was something unique to living things, a soul or life force that animated and gave form to matter. That "soul," he thought, was conveyed from the male to the female through the semen.

As we know, Western science fell into a long sleep with the end of the Roman Empire. When the west finally awoke nearly a millennium later, it rediscovered Aristotle and came to revere him as the "master of those who know." Medieval scholars devoured his ideas, and for the most part accepted them uncritically. In many areas, such as physics, science could only advance by throwing away its Aristotelian training wheels and encountering nature directly. That was not the case in biology. Aristotle had already shown the way, not by providing a pre-packaged Platonic system, but by offering himself as the model-the first and one of the best-of a naturalist at work. He created biology as a science, asked profound questions, and showed that those questions could be answered, but only through patient and painstaking dialogue with nature herself.


5. Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics: Simon Kirchin

How should we live? What is it to live well? What is it to be virtuous? This course raises some of these questions by introducing you to one of the classic ethical texts, Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics (NE). NE is based on lectures given by Aristotle in the fourth century BCE and is one of the most significant works in ethics. It is a practical work and its emphasis is on how to live well and exercise virtue; when Aristotle discusses theoretical issues the main aim is how we can learn to live better. It is a challenging and rich book but well worth reading and discussing.

The course is designed as a reader of NE and we will work our way through the text week by week. The separate books of NE are (more or less) split into different topics and so we will discuss one topic a week. The topics include: the good life, how to teach virtue and ethics, moral responsibility, different virtues, justice, practical reasoning, weakness of will and friendship.

By the end of this course (all with reference to NE), you should be able to:

  1. Outline the differences between Aristotelian ethics and deontological and consequentialist ethics; and, more generally, understand that Greek ethics is different from more modern day ethics.

  2. Outline and discuss Aristotle’s account of pleasure and the good life (eudaimonia).

  3. Outline and discuss Aristotle’s ideas concerning moral education.

  4. Outline and discuss Aristotle’s account of moral responsibility.

  5. Outline and discuss Aristotle’s accounts of different virtues, particularly justice.

  6. Outline and discuss Aristotle’s account of practical reasoning (phronesis).

  7. Outline and discuss the problem of weakness of will (akrasia) with reference to Aristotle.

  8. Outline and discuss Aristotle’s view of friendship (philia).

In addition, this course will give you the opportunity to improve the following transferable skills: the ability to summarize the main claims of arguments of a text; construct, defend and attack arguments; present ideas orally and in written form; and participate in discussion.

Outline of Course

Lecture 1: Introduction to Greek ethics. How does it differ from modern ways of thinking? Comparison between Aristotelian ethics and two modern ethical theories: deontology and consequentialism. To whom is NE addressed? What are Aristotle’s main aims? How should we read NE?

Lecture 2: NE Bk 1. Eudaimonia. Idea of aiming at ends. Supposedly everyone pursues eudaimonia, but what is it? (Possible answers: pleasure, honour, virtue, not happiness.) Self-sufficiency argument (eudaimonia is complete in itself and lacks nothing).

Lecture 3: NE Bk 2. Moral Education. Can virtue be taught? Doctrine of the mean.

Lecture 4: NE Bk 3, Chs 1-5. Moral responsibility. When is one held responsible for one’s actions? Problem of freewill and determinism.

Lecture 5: NE Bk 3, Chs 6-12; Bk 4. The Virtues. Discussion of different virtues (especially courage and temperance).

Lecture 6: NE Bk 5. Justice. Continuation of last week.

Lecture 7: NE Bk 6. Phronesis (practical wisdom). What is it to reason practically? How is phronesis linked to the virtues?

Lecture 8: NE Bk 7, Chs 1-10. Akrasia (weakness of will). How is it possible to do wrong knowingly? How is it possible to act against the judgement one thinks is best?

Lecture 9: NE Bk 7, Chs 11-14; Bk 10, Chs 1-5. Pleasure. Why does Aristotle have two discussions of pleasure and how are they related? The debate between hedonists and anti-hedonists.

Lecture 10: NE Bks 8-9. Philia (friendship, love (neither accurate)). Why it is necessary for the good life? Can we fake love for others? Is Aristotle an egoist in ethics?

Lecture 11: NE Bk 10, Chs 8-9. Eudaimonia again. Why is the contemplative life the best? Incommensurable values.

Lecture 12: Conclusions. Has Aristotle successfully bridged the gap between ‘being good’ and ‘living well’?

Course Requirements and Further Details

  • Most importantly, please read the Department’s Handbook for Students.

  • Also, you should check your emails regularly. The prime method of communication from the department (and hence lecturers) is electronic.

  • Credit and Assessment: This course is a ten credit course. To obtain credit for the unit you must submit an essay of suitable quality by the dealine below. The course is assessed on the basis of this essay; there is no exam.

  • Method of teaching: (i) The course will consist of one lecture a week. (ii) There will also be a one-on-one half-hour tutorial to discuss your essay. You have choice of either having your tutorial before you hand in your essay or afterwards. More details to follow.

  • You are expected to...:(i) There is no formal requirement to attend lectures (I won’t be taking a register). However, it is strongly recommended that you attend lectures. You won’t be able to understand the material by turning up once and doing a bit of reading on the side. (ii) You have to write one satisfactory coursework essay.

Reading List

You are not expected to read everything on this list. But you should read at least something both for the essays and as we go along.

Plus: You are expected to read the relevant parts of the NE each week.

This list is not exhaustive. If you cannot find any of the books below because they are out of the library, then please feel free to use your own initiative and seek out gems.

A: Essential

You must have access to a copy of NE. Given the pressures on the library, I don’t mind which translation you use, although the best two are:

  • Nicomachean Ethics trans. Terence Irwin (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1985)

  • Nicomachean Ethics trans. Roger Crisp (Cambridge: CUP 2000)

There are (or should be) copies of both in Waterstone’s. The Crisp in particular has a good introduction. Unfortunately, the library has copies of neither translation. In the short loan collection (one day) there is (or should be)

  • Nicomachean Ethics trans. W. D. Ross (Oxford: various years) SL

B: General Works on Aristotle

  • Aristotle by W. D. Ross (London: Methuen, many reprints) SL

  • Aristotle’s First Principles by T. H. Irwin (Oxford: OUP, 1988)

  • Aristotle the Philosopher by J. L. Ackrill (Oxford: OUP, 1981)

  • Aristotle by J. Barnes (Oxford: OUP, 1982)

  • The Cambridge Companion to Aristotle (ed.) J. Barnes (Cambridge: CUP, 1995)

C: Background to Greek Ethics

  • The Blackwell Companion to Ethics (ed.) P. Singer (Oxford: Blackwell 1991)

  • Ch. 10 ‘Ethics in Ancient Greece’ by C. Rowe SL

  • An Introduction to Greek Ethics by C. Rowe (London: 1976)

  • Greek Popular Morality in the Time of Plato and Aristotle by K. J. Dover (Oxford: OUP 1974)

  • A Short History of Ethics by A. MacIntyre (London: Routledge 1967)

D: Short Introductory Books on Ethics

  • Ethics by John Mackie (London: Penguin, 1977)

  • Moral Theory by David Oderberg (Oxford: Blackwell 2000)

  • Moral Philosophy by D. D. Raphael (Oxford: OUP, 1994)

E: Commentaries on the NE

  • Aristotle’s Ethics by J. O. Urmson (Oxford: Blackwell, 1988) SL

  • Aristotle’s Ethical Theory by W. F. R. Hardie (Oxford: OUP, 1968) SL

  • Aristotle’s Ethics by J. L. Ackrill (London: Faber, 1973) SL

  • Introduction to Aristotle’s Ethics by J. Barnes (London: Penguin, 1976)

  • Ethics with Aristotle by S. Broadie (Oxford: OUP, 1991).

F: Collections of Articles

  • Essays on Aristotle’s Ethics (ed.) A. O. Rorty (California: Calif. UP, 1980) SL

  • Aristotle’s Ethics (ed.) Nancy Sherman (London: Rowman and L., 1999)

  • New Essays on Plato and Aristotle (ed.) R. Bambrough (London: 1965)

  • Articles on Aristotle: Vol. 2, Ethics and Politics (eds.) J. Barnes et al (London: 1977) SL

  • Virtue Ethics (eds.) R. Crisp and M. Slote (Oxford: OUP, 1997)

  • Moral Concepts (ed.) J. Feinberg (Oxford: OUP, 1969) esp. chs. 1, 3, 8 and 9.

  • Aristotle, Kant and the Stoics (eds.) S. Engstrom and J. Whiting (Cambridge: CUP, 1996) esp. chs. 1, 2, 3, 4, 7, 8.

G: More Detailed Studies of Particular Issues

  • Practices of Reason by C. D. C. Reeve (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992)

  • The Morality of Happiness by Julia Annas (Oxford: OUP, 1993)

  • The Fabric of Character by N. Sherman (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989)

  • Making a Necessity of Virtue: Rethinking Aristotle and Kant by N. Sherman (Cambridge: CUP 1997)

  • Aristotle’s Philosophy of Action by D. Charles (London: Duckworth, 1984)

  • Reason and the Human Good in Aristotle by J. M. Cooper (Harvard: Harvard UP, 1975).

  • Necessity, Cause and Blame: Perspectives on Aristotle’s Theory by R. Sorabji (London: Duckworth, 1980)

  • Weakness of the Will by J. C. B. Gosling (London: Routledge, 1990)

  • Aristotle on Practical Wisdom and Weakness of the Will by R. D. Milo (Paris: Mouton, 1966)

H: Other Relevant Works

  • After Virtue by A. MacIntyre (London: Duckworth, 1981)

  • Virtues and Vices by P. Foot (California: California UP, 1978)

  • On Human Nature by E. O. Wilson (Harvard: Harvard UP 1978)

  • Weakness of Will by W. Charlton (Oxford: Blackwell 1988)

  • Action, Emotion and Will by A. Kenny (London: 1963)

  • Virtue Ethics by R. Hursthouse (Oxford: OUP 1999)

  • Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy by Bernard Williams (Cambridge: CUP 1985)

Key Terms in the NE

  • There are a number of key terms in Aristotle (and in other works of Greek literature) which do not have a handy equivalent in the English; no word which captures all of the nuances of the Greek.

  • In reading the NE you will encounter a number of important terms. Here are some of the main ones, with suggested translations to give you an idea of what the term means.

akousion - involuntary, unintentional (not blameworthy if wrong)

akrasia - weakness of will (misleading), incontinence (unfortunate!), lack of self-control

arete - virtue (misleading), excellence

boulesis - rational wish, a wish for something one reflectively believes is good

energeia - activity (contrasted with kinesis)

epithumia - mere unreflective appetite

ergon - characteristic activity, work, function

ethike - moral (misleading), concerned with character (better)

ethike arete - moral virtue (misleading), excellence of character (better)

eudaimonia - happiness (misleading), flourishing, the good life, living well

hekousin - voluntary, intentional (blameworthy if wrong)

hexis - disposition, habit or character trait

kakon - bad, base, ignoble, ugly (used in both moral and aesthetic senses)

kalon - good, fine, noble, beautiful (again, both moral and aesthetic)

kinesis - movement, change, process (contrasted with energeia)

orexis - desire. Root meaning is ‘a grasping for an object’. Generic term. Its three species are oulesis, thumos and epithumia

orthos logos - the right rule

pathos - passion, emotion, feeling

philia - friendship, love (neither is exactly right)

phronesis - practical reason

poiesis - making

praxis - action, conduct

prohairesis - rational choice, choice made in light of one’s conception of the good

thumos - emotion containing some desire. E.g.: fear involves a desire to run away

tuche - chance, luck


  • The following are suggestions for essay titles. If you wish to answer a different question, then that’s fine, but please check with me first.

  • I hope it is sufficiently clear which essay titles go with which part of the course. I have laid the reading list out above so that books are grouped in types. However, many of the books (i.e. those in ‘More Detailed Studies...’) have titles which are also sufficiently clear so it is apparent which book goes with which part of the course. As a guide to reading for the essays:

  1. Read the relevant part(s) in NE.

  2. Read the relevant chapters in one or two books of B and/or E.

  3. Read some of the relevant articles from one or two of the books in F.

  4. Read about the topic from one of the books in G.

Remember feel free to try to find books that aren’t on the reading list. You should be able to tell from the titles of essays and chapters (or the first couple of paragraphs), which books are going to be useful for you. Also, have a look in indexes. (And remember that significant words might be listed in either or both English and Greek.)

  1. What is the ‘quantifier-shift’ fallacy that Aristotle commits at the very start of NE? Does the fallacy matter? Why is Aristotle so confident that practical reasoning requires a unique end and is he right?

  2. Outline and critically assess Aristotle’s views concerning eudaimonia.

  3. How is Aristotle’s doctrine of the mean to be understood? Do you think that it is something that (a) can help to guide action, and (b) should be used to guide action?

  4. Outline and critically discuss Aristotle’s account of praise and blame.

  5. Outline and critically assess Aristotle’s discussion of one or two of the following virtues: (a) courage; (b) temperance; (c) justice.

  6. Socrates’ account of akrasia ‘contradicts the phenomena’ according to Aristotle. Is he right and does his account fare any better?

  7. Could it be to my advantage to develop character traits that motivate me to do things that are not (in any straightforward sense) to my advantage?

  8. Why are the two books on philia such an important part of the NE? Do they help Aristotle to bridge the gap between being good and living well?

  9. Does Aristotle really think that all other goods are subordinate to theoria? Is such a position defensible (a) as an interpretation of Aristotle, and (b) in its own right?

  10. Compare and contrast Aristotelian virtue ethics with either or both consequentialism and deontology.

Lecture 1 - Introduction

1. This course

  • What sorts of people should we be? What sort of life is best? What does it mean to be virtuous?

  • Admin. bumph. Notes about reading lists, lectures and course requirements.

2. Greek ethics

Different way of viewing things from our own. Differences reflected in activities and practices, in how society is organized. This feeds in to their common concepts and ideas and hence to their language.

Story of Achilles (Homer c850 BC).

Two ideas dominated Greek thought: eudaimonia and arete.

  • Eudaimonia: various translations (living well, well-being, flourishing, not happiness). People can be eudaimon if they are rich or powerful, if they are born well, have fine children. Greeks referred to people as eudaimon so as to refer to the source of feelings such as happiness, contentment, and not refer to the subjective feelings themselves. (Solon: ‘Call no man happy until he is dead.’)

  • Arete: translated as virtue or excellence (better). Yet it was used to refer to things that we wouldn’t think of as virtues (e.g. wittinesss, the ability to philosophize well) and benevolence, for instance, wasn’t included. Best to think of it in the sense of ‘This book has many virtues’. (Basic list is wisdom, courage, justice, moderation and piety (right behaviour towards the gods).)

Basic question: How should we live in order to achieve eudaimonia? Not the same as ‘What makes for an enjoyable life?’. Soc. gave pride of place to arete. Final core answer for Soc. and Plato is moral life; for Aristotle it is life of intellectual contemplation, in which the virtues play a role in this complex intellectual unity.

Human nature. General structure: everything has some function or other; the good life (eudaimonia) consists in performing the function well; nothing can perform its function unless it possesses arete, unless it is good of its kind; for A., for humans the best life is an active one guided or possessing reason. Question: Does A’s phil. rest on a certain conception of what humans are?

3. Modern day ethics

Concentration on what types of act we should perform, what we (all, or similarly placed people) should do. Greeks were more concerned with the shape of lives. In our day, goodness more often than not refers to moral goodness. (Think back to Achilles.) List of virtues is different. This has impact. The link between living well (being heroic, having good kids etc.) and being (m.) good is less clear in our age if at all. We are interested in questions such as ‘What is our duty?’, ‘What is morally required?’. These questions would have been alien in the ancient world. They (hardly) had any comparable ideas of duty and rights. Often it is said that modernity is concerned with morality (i.e. duty) whilst the Greeks were more concerned with ethics (embodying wider concerns).

Two moral theories (many different versions of the following):

  • Consequentialism: act in each and every situation so as to maximize good consequences.

  • Deontology: list of moral principles (e.g.s ‘Do not lie’, ‘Do not kill’) which tell us what to do with reference to certain acts. List of principles is normally developed from some overarching principle such as ‘Act so as to respect everyone else’.

Big difference between these two as to whether we promote as values as much as possible (maximize the amount of fairness in the world – conseq.), or honour certain values (such as fairness or respect – deont.)

Aristotelian virtue ethics: Less concerned with the act or the consequences. More concerned with the person and developing virtues. Again, what sort of person should I be? – An honest one? Primary form of justification.

4. NE

Written in the fourth century BC (A – 384-322 BC). Probably written as a series of lectures rather than as a book. Not written as a continuous unity certainly. Bks. V-VII of NE are also Bks. IV-VI of another of A.’s books, the Eudemian Ethics (most people think that EE came first). NE contains two separate discussions of pleasure (probably editors included Bks. V-VII so as to plug a gap).

How should we read it? Read it not as a book but as a series of lectures. Remember that A. is speaking to people who are already well brought up (just like you!). His aim is not (i) to show you that you should be moral and good, nor (ii) to pursue metaethical reflections such as those concerning moral relativism. He assumes that we are in a small community and have a general idea of what we should do. His aim is to deepen our understanding of already shared values and practices. Although, note that this does not imply that A was a conservative thinker. Sometimes he went beyond the confines of accepted thought of his day (on happiness, say).

Importantly, his emphasis is practical. NE is not intended to be merely idle, theoretical hot-air. A. thinks that through reflection one can change one’s practices, one can see how one should live and what sort of person one should be.

  • Socratic method: ‘What is X?’ (e.g. virtue, justice, etc.). Definitions subjected to criticism by Soc. leading to a state of puzzlement (‘I’m now not sure what courage is’).

  • Aristotelian method: Four stages (NE VII.1, 1145b). (i) Decide on area of enquiry (incontinence); (ii) Set out the views of the many and the wise. (iii) Note any problems that arise (e.g. conflicts between the 2 types of view). (iv) Resolve as best as one can.

Philosophical precision. A. tells us (I.3, 1094b) that different subject matters have different levels of accuracy. So, for instance, accuracy in mathematics is different from that in ethics. In ethics one can make generalizations (‘It is a good thing to be courageous’) and such things can be true, whereas in maths we demand total accuracy. Ethics, as wise people know, is incapable of complete precision.


Concepts and language are different. But we can gain some understanding of their value system (and it is good to get a perspective on our own).

The text itself is difficult, i.e. written in an unmodern style. But it is less difficult than seems at first and it is worth the effort. It takes some work. It is true of ethics and text courses perhaps more than other phil. courses: the more you put in, the more you get out.

Lecture 2 – Eudaimonia (Bk1)

1. Introduction

In this ch. A is concerned with the end at which all men should aim. Recall Soc.’s question: How can one achieve eudaimonia? Recall that this means something like ‘How can we live so as to live well?’

2. The first sentence

  • ‘Every skill and every inquiry, and similarly every action and rational choice, is thought to aim at some good; and so the good has been aptly described as that at which everything aims.’ (I.1, 1094a)

First thought. Does everything aim at some good? What about counting the number of light fittings in a lecture room? (Recall A’s point about ethics and accuracy.) General thought: when an agent performs an action there is some point to them doing it. (E.g. counting the light fittings serves to while away time. That might not be good, but...)

Quantifier-shift fallacy. (Is ‘All the nice girls love a sailor’ equivalent to ‘There is a sailor whom all the nice girls love’?).

3. But...

But even if A has blundered, the claim that there is a (singular) good at which everything aims might be correct. Initial problem: surely there are a number of things that we do for their own sake. Even A mentions a few (health, wealth) in his second paragraph. A distinguishes between activity pursued for its own sake and one pursued to further some other end.

Example of the writer. Is writing each word (or letter) something we do for its own sake? A’s thought is that everything, including activities related to health and wealth are, likewise, aiming at some wide or wider end.

So, what is this all-embracing good? Answer: eudaimonia (living well). Remember it is not the same as ‘happiness’. ‘Happiness’ has overtones of a subjective mental state or feeling. One can be happy and yet that feeling be inappropriate (a cuckolded spouse). A, and Greeks, were interested in the features of the situation (which, of course, might well result in subjective states). Similarly, one must judge people’s life as a whole.

Important: Being eudaimon is not a moral judgement. Greeks did not have the conception of someone of good character but whose life was diminished in some way (because, e.g. they had devoted their life to the poor). Remember that we are talking about excellence (having a nice family, being rich and powerful, brave in war, etc.). A. distinguishes between the moral life (which is to be praised) and the eudaimon life (which is to be prized) (e.g. 1101b). Urmson’s e.g.: ‘What sort of life do you want for your child?’ is similar to ‘What is the life of eudaimonia? Eudaimonia is the ideal life. And, of course, people (including the Greeks) have different ideas as to what it is to live well. Indeed, A. thought that eudaimonia was composite (one had to be wealthy, healthy, brave and not ugly, solitary, childless etc. 1095b). At 1100a he considers that one’s eudaimonia can be affected by what happens after one’s death (how one’s descendants do for instance).

Self-sufficiency. (See I.7.) Eudaimonia is said, by A., to be worthy of choice on its own and lacking in nothing. Eudaimonia cannot be improved. (Of course, any life is lacking in something the addition of which can improve it. Rather, A’s point is a conceptual one about the concept of eudaimonia.)

Two interpretations of A.

  • Inclusivist. Includes lots of different goods in eudaimonia (perhaps all goods). So, if you think that the eudaimon life is one of pleasure, but value a life of pleasure and wisdom more, than your conception of eudaimonia is shown to be lacking.

  • Dominant. Eudaimonia is one good (and the best one) amongst others. This is supported by the fact that A. argues later (X.7, 1177a) that eudaimonia is to be identified with just one good (phil. contemplation).

Inclusivist might argue that having established that eudaimonia consists in exercising the virtues (doing excellent things), A. is asking which of the virtues is the best.

C.f.: (I) Urmson says that health, wealth and beauty might be more important in some walks of life rather than others, ‘but are not to be despised by anyone’ (p. 14). So, eudaimonia is composite involving as it does many different possible aspects but A. thinks that, as one might say, these aspects can be channelled in better and worse ways. The contemplative life is the best way of life (beating public service into second place).

(II) Similarly, Kraut in Sherman (ed.) (1999). Many things are good (e.g. health). But A. distinguishes between a good and the good (I.1, 1094a 1-3). Virtuous life is the good, not just one good amongst many, and not even the best good amongst many goods. Shouldn’t treat the thing that is identified as being good (in A.’s case, virtue) as one good amongst many. It is a conceptual point. And A. is prepared to defend the view that eudaimonia consists in one good which is incapable of improvement, i.e. virtue. In short, then, according to inclusivists, A is making a conceptual point about eudaimonia. It is complete in itself and lacking nothing.

4. Definition

So everyone agrees that the good life aims at eudaimonia. But we all disagree about what that consists of. To give an A. definition is not to give a synonym (e.g. living well); it is not intended to give the meaning of a word. An A. definition attempts to tell us what the thing defined really is or what causes something that we want explaining. (E.g. What is claustrophobia?)

5. Rest of the chapter

The rest of the ch., much like the rest of the book, is devoted to giving us the answer to the question ‘What is eudaimonia?’.

Outline in the rest of the ch. (1098a 15-18) good for man is ‘activity of the soul exhibiting the highest and most complete excellence in human life’. Note, ‘excellence’ not ‘virtue’. A isn’t saying that the best actions are those that are moral. Rather, if you are going to do something then do it well. A life devoted to virtue, if badly carried out, is worse than playing the aulos (a reedpipe) well. In Bk X A says that contemplative life is best and it is better to do it better rather than worse); but we’re not there yet.

In Bk I A does say that an account of the best life includes reason, for this is what sets men apart from animals. We can choose what to do whereas animals cannot (or we do so in a way that is very different from how animals ‘choose’). We are not after merely sensual. We must exercise our intelligence: either practically (in public service) or theoretically (in contemplation).

Depends on man having a function in the first place. A says (1097b 25-28) that the aulos player and the sculptor have functions, so man must have a function as well. But this seems silly. Aulos player is a functional term, like screwdriver. But is ‘man’? A.’s outlook different (perhaps) from modern day. His was teleological: he saw purpose in everything. (A thinks that man has reason for a purpose as well.)

But why reason? Someone might think that we would be better off not relying on it.

That’s just silly. However, it is one thing to say that reason is of value; another to say that it (well, rationally exercised virtue) is the best aspect of life. Args to come later in NE.

Lecture 3 – Excellence, Education and the Mean (Bk 2)

1. Previously...

We have looked at eudaimonia in Bk. I. But, one might ask whether this can be taught and in what it consists. And wasn’t the discussion supposed to be practical?...

2. Background

Recall stuff mentioned (briefly) last week. Idea of soul. Two part division. Rational part has intellect and intellectual virtues; the most important of which is practical wisdom (phronesis). The non-rational part can be split into two. The first has to do with nutrition. The second has more in common with reason and is capable of opposing it (in the case of akrasia) and of obeying it. Contains virtues of character: e.g.s courage and generosity.

3. Education

A question from Plato’s day is how excellence is acquired. A. says that the intellectual virtues are largely acquired through teaching whilst the virtues of character are acquired through ‘training’ (not quite ‘habituation’). Note: A doesn’t believe that we are born bad. Instead we are born ‘neutral’. (More impressed by affects of environment than heredity.)

Acquiring a good character is like acquiring a skill such as woodwork or juggling. Performing generous actions (being made to see that one should, being forced to) will lead one to acquire a generous character. Surely right (a child made to share will find it easier to share in the long run).

But, if someone performs a just action then he is just (no need to worry about any of this acquisition stuff). A (II.4, 1105a) says that an agent is virtuous if he performs them in the correct way, i.e., know what he is doing, choosing them for their own sake. A is not concerned merely with the action, but the reasons that one has come to perform it. (I could be giving money to charity but doing so only to impress you, not because I care about those who are to be helped.)

Better to talk of excellence of character rather than moral virtue. Urmson’s example of public speakers. But, can’t we sometimes act properly yet be doing something we don’t want to do? Yes. A discusses it in Bk. VII.

So, A thinks of virtues as being like dispositions engendered through practice or habituation. It is in relation to having dispositions or habits (urrgh!) that incline one towards excess or deficiency that A. starts to talk about the mean.

4. The Doctrine of the Mean

When we act we need to act appropriately. But what is it to act appropriately? A’s discussion of this issue centres round his ‘doctrine of the mean’. Often misunderstood. A is not saying ‘moderation in all things’. As we will see, it might turn out that in some situations it is right to act with moderation. Indeed, in might turn out that in all situations we should act with moderation. These claims depend on the situations. But A is not saying that one should act with moderation no matter what the situation. There is nothing to say for moderation in and of itself.

So what is A saying? Motivation for saying it first. We need to understand what virtues we should be trained into having (and how we should try to conceive and think about situations before we act). Need some practical guidance. So, for instance, getting into the habit of eating too much or too little is bad for one’s health (II.2, 1104a). Similarly with fear: it is bad to be both fearless in the face of anything (standing your ground as a truck comes at you) and fearful in the face of anything (too frightened to cross any road). The brave or courageous person (i.e. the virtuous) is the person who stands firm against terrifying situations, when he should, for the right reasons.

Note that A. thinks that virtue is relative to us. But be careful. This does not mean that if we are usually very angry than I should adopt a ‘mean’ position in every situation in between glowering at people and hitting them (e.g. shouting very loudly at people). A. means that we should we think what the virtuous person would do if she were in our circumstances, were as rich as us, etc. (Note, but how far does ‘in our circumstances’ extend? Had the same upbringing and training as us?)

So, what is the doctrine of the mean? A says that we can go right in any circumstance, i.e. the right reaction to a situation, being brave when confronted by this thing. And, he gives examples in which one’s going wrong is of two types (II.6, 1106b): not feeling fear when we should, and feeling fear when we shouldn’t. (The right reaction is feeling fear when we should (and, of course, and just to tidy things up, not feeling fear when we shouldn’t.)

This helps us to understand actions. Generosity is the mean between giving away your money to people who do not deserve it and not giving to people who do deserve it (or not giving enough, etc.).

So the picture we have is of choosing the ‘right’ action, the appropriate feeling in each situation. The confusion in (h) above arises because A presents his view by using examples where the right course of action lies between two extremes. But, what that right action is, and where the extremes are, is debatable. In some cases (e.g. relating to social justice), it might be right to get angry (there might also be some circumstances relating to social justice where one should be clam and measured). A’s point is, again, conceptual. He is saying that there is a right way to act (or some right ways) to act and certainly many wrong ways to act. He shows that one can go wrong either by doing or being or... ‘too much’ or ‘too little’.

Important to understand...

At the start of ch.7 he distinguishes six states of character that come in three pairs:

  • Super-human excellence (heroic, only of the gods) v. (ii) Sub-human (the mad?)

  • Exc. of charac. (act app. and no friction) v. (iv) Bad. of charac. (act improperly)

  • Strength of will (wants to act improp., no friction) v. (vi) Weak. of will (wants to act well, but can’t)

Ignore first pair. Ranking: (iii), (v), (vi) and (iv). Return to (v) and (vi) in lec. 8.

Note. Recall that for A. excellence of charac. is a settled state.

5. But...

Some say that the doctrine is empty, i.e. it doesn’t tell us anything of practical importance and is a mere truism. A himself goes some way in this direction at VI.1, 1138b where he says that it is like him telling you to take the doctor’s advice (A’s doc. doesn’t actually tell us what to do). But, at II.9, 1109a-b, A says that the doc. is of value when taken in conjunction with first ethical principles, because it can be used to assess character and influence its development.

I have presented A’s doc. in terms of ‘too much and too little’. One might have too much intensity of a certain reaction, it might last for too long, one might have it too often (if one is considering people’s lives over a number of situations) and so on (and the same for ‘too little’). But is this the best way to understand A.? Certainly there’s lots of comments to support this interpretation (e.g. 1107a, where A talks of excesses and deficiencies). But (see R. Hursthouse, ‘A False Doc. of the Mean’ Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 1980-81), this is controversial because (i) it might not be what A means, certainly not all the time and (ii) it seems false anyway.

Certainly in Bk. II A’s view suggests that he does think like this, but he also says he is talking in outline only and much of the detailed discussion in Bks. III and IV suggests that he is aware of problems (see below). Plus A. does not give detailed specifications of ‘excess’ and ‘deficiency’; they have to be filled in (e.g. too many times, too intense, etc.).

It seems highly coincidental that each virtue should have two opposing vices, one ‘above’ and one ‘below’. Plus, it is simply false that some virtues (e.g. justice, temperance) are a mean between two extremes (as A acknowledges). As Hursthouse suggests, ‘right object’ and ‘right occasion’ can’t be defined merely with reference to two extremes. E.g. temperance. Sure, we can sometimes analyze ‘wrong object’ using ‘too...’ (c.f. 1118b). But not all the time (e.g. of two people raised differently). General idea, as we’ll see, can one be over-just? Or over-fair? Seems odd to say yes. (Examples?) Indeed, what about fear and courage? Can right object be analysed using ‘too...’?

Lecture 4 – Moral Responsibility (Bk 3, Chs. 1-5)

1. So far....

Last week: we were talking about eudaimonia, how people can be educated and the doc. of the mean. Today: when are you responsible for actions? A discusses this since many of his pupils were going to be legislators and they needed to understand when someone should be blamed and/or was deserving of punishment, and when such responses were inappropriate.

2. Terminology

Three –way distinction: (i) voluntary/intended (hekousios); (ii) involuntary/contrary to intention (akousion); (iii) non-voluntary/unintended (also hekousios - see III.1, 1110a4-b17).

Urmson prefers ‘intended’ and ‘contrary to intention’ because A was primarily concerned with cases of ignorance where one misleads someone (e.g. one says something false) even though one thought it was true and was intending to tell them a truth. Most translations (inc. Crisp, Irwin) use vol/invol.

3. Force and Ignorance

A begins by saying that people are praised and blamed for voluntary actions. But when shouldn’t they be praised and blamed? He identifies two main ways in which actions can be involuntary – force and ignorance.

Force: physical force applied to me (by men or nature). E.g. I intend to go to Egypt, but the wind blows my boat off course. I cannot be blamed (or praised) if I do not arrive at Egypt. At 1110a2-3 a notes that strictly this is not really an action at all but only something that happens to one, the agent contributes no agency to the action.

It is important to keep the previous type of case apart from other types of case when we do contribute agency but are not under physical force. One is under some sort of compulsion. (There is a general question as to what counts as force.) A’s example: a captain throws his cargo overboard to stop his ship from sinking. A says that the source of the action is internal (i.e. the captain). But he allows that in such circumstances such actions are involuntary: they are the sorts of thing that no one would choose to do in themselves. In other words, the captain’s action is understandable (and pardonable) since there was a good reason for his doing what he did and we presume he would not have thrown the cargo overboard unless there was a good reason. A calls such actions ‘mixed’.

Note that A thinks that there are some things that should never be done (e.g. matricide)

This seems slightly unfair (e.g. what about incredible psychological torture?). A obviously hasn’t considered such things, and who is to say that such horrible methods were around in his day? We would probably want to assimilate them to cases of irresistible force. The agent ‘does’ them but there is no sense in which they are in control of their actions and so, perhaps, they do not contribute any agency.

Ignorance: We commonly excuse people who act because they are ignorant of some fact. At this point A distinguishes non-vol from invol. (1110b 18ff). Actions might have features of which agents are unaware. Agents might well not intend that the action has such features (or, stronger, on reflection they might wish that the action does not have such features). At other times, they might be unaware that the act has such features but be indifferent to such features’ existence. Say that I but do not realize that -ing causes  (something bad). A says that if I regret the action (or regret the fact that it has ) and hence would not have performed the action if I had known, then this marks the difference between the invol (I regret the action) and the non-vol. (I don’t). This distinction perhaps arises out of A’s concern for praise and blame, for if I am not sorry for what I did then there could be a case for blaming me even though I might not have ed had I known that it would have caused .

A further distinction. One can act through ignorance and in ignorance. One escapes blame only when one acts through ignorance of particular facts (1110b33). A drunk acts in ignorance (and is to be blamed) since she got herself into that state which then causes her to in a yob-like manner. For A, ignorance of principle and of knowing how to behave is no excuse. (We might think that this is slightly harsh – e.g. upbringing.)

‘Ignorance of fact’ (1111a). Should be interpreted in a wide manner. Not just Aeschylus’ defence that he didn’t know he wasn’t supposed to reveal the rites of the initiation ceremony into the Mysteries. Also Merope killing her son whom she thought was her enemy. This ‘ignorance of fact’ is like a case of mistaken identity, or a failure of recognition. Similarly, when joking with you I did not know that my remark would cause such offence (an error of judgement). However, it is clear that there is room to discuss in more detail when ignorance is justified. (E.g.s: Shouldn’t I have thought harder before I made the remark? Or worked on my character so I wasn’t the type of person who made such remarks? Or just tried harder to discover some piece of information?) A could have done more, but there is a relevant discussion on bad luck in Bk. VIII.

4. Choice

Bk. III Ch. 2. A wants to investigate what choice is. It isn’t appetite or spirit since choice involves the use of reason. Also, choice can conflict with appetite e.g. akrasia. A dismisses choice being the same as spirit as obviously wrong.

But what about wish? Again, not the same since it is rational to wish for many things that one knows to be impossible (e.g. immortality) yet not choose them. Point about choice: one can choose to do a course but one cannot choose to get good marks. (Important later.) Note, however, that although choices are not identical with wishes, one could not choose if one did not wish. One has to choose between wishes. A’s (tentative) conclusion is that choice is that which is intended as a result of deliberation.

5. Deliberation

A says that delib. must always be about some goal that is possible of achievement. So one can’t delib about the existence of tables or about ‘2+2=4’. Plus delib. is needed only when there is no standard way of tackling a problem: (Urmson) I can deliberate about how to get from A to B but not about how to start the car.

Odd (1112b). A says that we can delib. about how to achieve our ends but not about the ends themselves. Eh? Surely one can delib. about what type of task to perform today or in life. A says a doctor does not delib. whether he will cure...but having laid down an end [he] considers how and by what means it will be attained. Two interps: (i) We delib. about things. Then, when those are settled we do not question them again but delib. only about how to achieve them. (ii) (Recall point about choice.) One can choose to go to medical school but not whether to succeed in becoming a doctor. Similar, one can delib. (or not) about whether to cure patients, but one cannot choose to be successful in curing them. Generally, one can delib. only about one strategy, not about one’s ‘ends’ or (better) ‘success’. (i) Is okay if one is discussing ends, but (ii) is better for success.

So...everything we want will be either pleasant or good. Pleasant requires no delib. or choice (i.e. achieved through unconscious urges). Good can be gained only through delib. So, we can desire the good (rational wish) or the pleasant (appetite). Pleasant: we can delib about how to attain it if it is not immediately within our grasp (or not); same with good.

6. Chapter 5

A examines the presupposition of the previous ch.s: Are we free? He repeats idea that what we plan to do etc. are paradigm cases of intentions for which we can be held responsible. A discusses prob. He says that we are born without a character and get it from environment. So, we have no choice over what environment into which we are born. A bites the bullet and says that we have some responsibility for the types of people we become. One can avoid (at certain times) becoming the type of person who would do x. It is possible for me to recognize that x is a bad thing (if it is) even if I have been raised to admire x. This account might well not be wholly satisfactory, although there is some truth in it. (M. luck?)

Lecture 5 – The Virtues (Bk 3 Chs. 6-12; Bk 4)

1. So far....

Thought about responsibility last week. And we have been thinking about what it is to be good. But we need to put some meat on the bones. For the next two weeks we’ll be discussing the virtues. Next week: justice. Courage and temperance this week (the rest aren’t that phil. interesting).

2. Table of discussions (from Crisp intro.)

  • Virtue Sphere Discussion in NE

  • Courage Fear and confidence III.6-9

  • Temperance Bodily pleasure and pain III.10-12

  • Generosity Giving and retaining money IV.1

  • Magnificence Giving and retaining money on a large scale IV.2

  • Greatness of soul Honour on a large scale IV.3

  • [Nameless] Honour on a small scale IV.4

  • Even temper Anger IV.5

  • Friendliness Social relations IV.6

  • Truthfulness Honesty about oneself IV.7

  • Wit Conversation IV.8

  • Justice Distribution V

  • Friendship Personal relations VIII-IX

Remember that many things that we might classify as virtuous behaviour (e.g. compassion, kindness) aren’t included here. And A includes some things that we might not think are virtues (e.g. greatness of soul – which is thinking oneself worthy of great things and being concerned almost entirely with honour). A is a product of his time.

3. Doctrine of the mean

Recap. There is a right way and a wrong way to act. (Not an account of ‘moderation in all things’.) Often A uses examples which suggest an analysis in terms of ‘too much’ and ‘too little’ but it is arguable that one can’t do this for all virtues. In more detailed discussion, now, we can see that for some virtues this analysis is silly. (Again, see R. Hursthouse, ‘A False Doctrine of the Mean’ Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 1980-81.)

4. Courage

Imp, to Greeks because they lived in a city-state that required protection. Many wars, etc. Be wary. ‘Courage’ or ‘bravery’ suggests something wide-ranging. A. means something quite narrow: ‘bravery in war and in the face of death’. (‘Valour’?)

In Bk. II (1107a33-b4) A says: ‘In fear and confidence, courage is the mean. Of those who exceed it, the person who exceeds in fearlessness has no ‘name’ (some virtues lack labels), while the one who exceeds in confidence is rash. He who exceeds in being afraid and is deficient in confidence is a coward.’ (Note, A acknowledges (1117b15-16) that his general account of excellence of character is wrong when he says that the man of excellent charac. enjoys performing excellent actions. Clearly, showing courage might involve unpleasant actions. Modifies idea: the courageous man wants to act honourably and takes delight in that.)

Problem: Fear and confidence do not seem to be exact opposites. That is, there is no problem if courage is seen as lying between ‘too much’ fear and ‘too little’ fear and where ‘too much’ fear is equivalent to ‘too little confidence’ and similarly for ‘too little fear’. But look at the quotation again. A says that exceeding in fearlessness is a nameless state whilst exceeding in confidence has a name (being rash). So A regards fear and confidence as different. To complicate matters, it appears that cowardice is the opposite of both states. Put schematically:













A thought that if a term had different opposites then it was ambiguous (see the Topics 106a 9-22). Thus ‘cowardice’ is ambiguous. And, if brave is supposed to be a mean, then it too is ambig. Because of the ambiguity, Urmson suggests two triads, although A doesn’t say this at all:













So how to solve the problem? (C.f. Ross.) Urmson considers this: ‘Courage is concerned with both confidence and fear, but not to the same degree with both – more with fearful things.’ (1117a29-30.) U suggests that A thinks that fear is concerned with the expectation of bad things, but not all of them have to do with courage. Imagine I fear that Wolves won’t gain promotion (again) this season. This fear has nothing to do with fear of death. However someone else can be confident of Wolves gaining promotion. So, A makes two mistakes.

  1. Fails to distinguish two types of fear (one to do with bravery, one to do with expecting the bad and it is only the 2nd that is the opposite of confidence).

  2. Fails to distinguish two triads.

Urmson may not be right as regards having two triads (see Pears in Rorty (ed.) (1980)). But let’s concentrate on only one and return to question whether U’s reading of the doc. of the mean is correct. Think about Hursthouse again. Is being brave really in between two extremes? How literal is talk of excess with regard to fear? Is being cowardly fearing too many objects on too many occasions (or some similar type of combination)? At the start of his discussion A says that fearing the right objects is a matter of fearing. The right sort of fear is picked out with no ref. to the mean. E.g. say the right objects for fear are war, pain and the like. I don’t fear any of these but I do fear mice. In which case, according to Hursthouse, I am fearless, not because I exhibit no fear but because I do not fear the right objects. (Amount?: fearing death ‘the right amount’ comes to fearing death.)

5. Temperance

A discusses temp. in connection with eating, drinking and sex. Starts with a discussion of different pleasures. Mental pleasures = thought (no body). Bodily = wider then we use the word, it also involves the pleasures (looking at paintings). But A ack.s that such things as listening to music cannot be carried to excess in the same way as eating and drinking. True spirit of temp. involves touch. Clear that a is trying to pick out what we call bodily pleasures, those that involve pleasant sensations. (Reading poetry might be pleasant (sometimes) but doesn’t cause pleasant sensations, not in the same way as eating home-cooking does.) And A is inclined to think of taste as a type of touch. Whether we think ahas quite hit the nail on the head as regards distinguishing matters using touch, we know the sort of distinction he is aiming for, something which is quite modern (and which probably wasn’t well reflected in Greek thought and language).

Debate for temperance similar to that above. Is being temperate something which is in the middle of two excesses (too much and too little), or it is enjoying the right types of activity (food, sex, drink), for the right amount of time, on the right occasion, etc.? Hursthouse argues that although temperance can, on some occasions, be illustrated with reference to ‘too much’ and ‘too little’, on other occasions it can’t. Sig. diff. = temp man not only avoids pleasures which are incompatible with good health, but also pleasures which are dishonourable (contrary to kalos (1119a15-18)). The licentious man ignores these limitations and enjoys excessive guzzling and eating what is odious (miseta – the ‘e’ should have a bar across its top) (1118b26). So it seems, again, that one can be intemperate if one eats the wrong things where this cannot be cashed out in terms of ‘too...too...’ all the time. Even worse for sex, since A specifies only adultery as being intemperate with regard to sex (i.e. not too much sex, but any act of adultery). Adultery here means seduction of any female relative of a fellow citizen. Committing adultery just once connotes depravity.

Lecture 6 – Justice (Bk. 5)

1. So far...

We have been thinking about the virtues and concentrated on courage and temperance in particular. This week we’ll concentrate on justice.

2. General and Particular Justice

At the start of bk. 5 there is a distinction between general and particular justice. General justice is best interpreted as our word ‘morality’ (although different from it). A distinguishes virtues exercised in relation to oneself (e.g. temperance) from virtues exercised in relation to others (e.g. friendliness). The person with general justice has and exercises both. General justice is a quality found only within a community in which the virtuous can find people who can serve as objects of virtuous actions.

This general conception of justice is also concerned with law. A hopes that a just state will have laws which instantiate all of the virtues in the citizens. A is thus extending the notion of laws widely. He thinks that there should be laws governing and encouraging wit, friendliness etc. This sounds strange (and it is). In the Politics he famously claims that there should be detailed legislation for flute playing.

Particular justice is best understood as an individual virtue, on a par with temperance, friendliness etc. It is part of general justice. For most of Bk. 5 a is concerned with this. Idea is clear: the unjust person will give himself more than his fair share. Primary problem: there seems to be no feeling associated with justice that one can have in excess or which one can be deficient in. Reluctance to get one’s fair share, to exert one’s rights is not any kind of injustice (although it might be misguided or stupid). Indeed, A denies that one can be unjust to oneself (1138a 15). A recognizes that justice applies to states of affairs, outcomes, certain distributions (most of his examples relate to this). But his account might well go wrong when we come across the doc. of the mean again.

3. Particular Justice

A makes a further division within particular justice.

  • Distributive justice (to do with a proper allocation of wealth and honour amongst the citizens).

  • Rectificatory justice (to do with restoring fair shares when some injustice has occurred).

Within rect. justice A distinguishes again between transactions which are voluntary (intended) transactions and involuntary (contrary to intention) transactions.

Urmson draws similarities between A’s divisions and civil law. Distrib = sounds like carving the goods of a deceased person. Rect. justice = sounds like awarding damages in a civil suit. (Although there are plenty of differences as well.)

4. Distributive and Rectific Justice: Some details

As said, A is concerned with distributing wealth and honour amongst the citizens. A thinks that a just distrib. will distrib wealth and honour in terms of desert. Desert in turn is determined by the political system that any community operates under. For A, in democracies everyone gets the same whilst in aristocracies some get more than others. There is no notion that people might get extra because of need. As a guide to modern life there are still questions to ask here regarding ‘desert’ and ‘treating equally’. If people earn more do they deserve to be taxed more (or less)? Or should everyone pay the same tax? What do we mean by need? Do people who have more expensive tastes need more resources than others, or should everyone get the same?

Rectific. justice seems simpler. Easy case. I borrow some money from you, I should give the same amount back. But what about more complicated cases? As A acknowledges, it is going to be more difficult when we do something which is not easily translated into monetary value (e.g. injure you either physically or non-physically by, say, slandering you).

5. Doctrine of the Mean Again

A uses the doc. of the mean in relation to justice as he does with all the other virtues. It does not work. For instance (1131b16-20), A says that a just distribution is the mean between one party getting too much and another getting too little. He says that the first party is acting unjustly where he might well be passive, as a recipient.

Things get even worse. In a famous passage (1133b 30-1134a 15), A distinguishes between someone who is unjust (who performs the distribution) and those who act unjustly (who receive more than their fair share as a result of the distribution). This seems strange and wrong. The problem is that A is trying to account for how justice can be an excellence of character. Being just does not entail that one has a certain emotion or feeling let alone exhibit it to the right degree. Instead being just means operating within certain principles and applying certain notions correctly. Administrating justice – being just – is a special occupation, not a special character trait.

Later on (at 1136b28) he notes all of this and says that it is the one who does the distributing that acts unjustly. This is as a result of his realizing that justice has little to do with the doc. of the mean (understood in the ‘too…too…’ way). This may not support a certain reading of A (i.e. the not ‘too…too’ way) but it does show that it is better to understand the virtues as not being reducible to some simple ‘too…too…’ analysis.

6. Other things

A also discusses money in ch. 5 (an important early essay in economic theory) and the relationship between natural and legal justice in ch. 7 (natural – what is always good for mankind; legal – what is good for that society due to certain historic, economic, demographic, climactic, etc. reasons).

Discussion of ‘equity’ in ch. 10. Equity is the virtue of a judge that allows him to know what to do when the law does not provide explicit and exact guidance. Classic example (from Crisp): the law tells me to refrain from riding any vehicles along a certain stretch of road. Am I allowed to ride my skateboard? Is it a vehicle? The person of equity will know what to do. Human life is so complicated that no system of laws could hope to legislate for every eventuality. We need some way of telling when to break laws (perhaps by reflecting on the reason why the law was enacted in the first place and whether my breaking it will infringe on what I should do. This takes us to more general considerations, not just law. We need to consider the chief intellectual virtue, namely practical wisdom, the ability to know (or ‘see’) exactly what one should do and say. Next week…..

Lecture 7 – Phronesis (Practical Wisdom) (Bk 6)

1. So far...

Over the past two weeks we’ve been thinking about the virtues and before that the doctrine of the mean. But if we wish to be virtuous we have to know how to act and do so well. A is giving us guidance but we have to apply it. Even if he can’t lay down rules for action for every situation, it would be good if he speculated a bit about how we go about applying our knowledge. Luckily...

2. General

By practical wisdom, or phronesis, A means the ability to ‘fill in the gaps’ left by one’s teachers. For instance, I might give you some general ideas and guidelines, perhaps illustrated by a few examples, of how you should treat other people. But I cannot hope to tell you how to act in every possible situation. Phronesis involves extrapolating general ideas from what people have taught you and applying these ideas in new situations. The virtuous person has practical wisdom because they are able to get it right in every ‘sphere’ of conduct without explicit and exact guidance from others (such as parents and teachers).

Think back to the doc. of the mean. No matter which interp. we favour, there is no way that it provides explicit and exact rules of conduct. We have to decide what counts as ‘too much’ (or just ‘right’). A says on a number of occasions (e.g. I.3, 1094b) that ethics cannot be captured in a set of rules or principles. Indeed, and this is important in modern ethics, at VI.8, 1142a A says explicitly that phronesis is a matter of ‘perception’, a way of seeing situations, rather than of applying rules (or of just applying rules). For instance, it is all very well me saying ‘help the needy’, but it all depends on who you see as needy, what features of people’s lives are deemed important. And, recalling the point above, there might be some situations that are not covered by any rules I might have given you. The hope is that you have been trained in such a way that you ‘see’ situations in the right sort of way – i.e. as the virtuous person sees them – and act accordingly.

‘Seeing’? This is quasi-metaphorical. Of course, most of us (those apart from the blind) do literally see situations and gain information about them from this sense. But the important idea is that situations (e.g. how people act, background information and the like) have different features. It is important which features one thinks are (or sees as) important and relevant (and morally important and relevant) and how one sees such features as linking. That’s all that is meant by the term ‘seeing’. So any two people might see the same situation differently. In more modern parlance, people have different ‘takes’.

3. Bit of background

Recall that A divided the soul into different parts (rational and non-rational parts). Non-rational part is divided into two (nutrition, and virtues such as courage). We are interested in the rational part of the soul. This part is further divided into two by A. Two classes of intellectual virtue because he believes that objects of reasoning can be divided into two. The two objects are the invariable (e.g. mathematics, logic) and the variable (e.g. human action). The two parts – the two types of reasoning – are reasoning about these two types of object. Remember that each part of the soul has its virtues and exercising any virtue results in happiness. The intellect has its own virtues (as we’ll see in Bk. X).

For clarity, A thinks that there are five states of the soul that grasp truth. One is practical wisdom. The other four are: (i) scientific wisdom which grasps that which is necessary and eternal (e.g. maths); (ii) skill – this is concerned with the variable and is concerned with producing things; (iii) intellect: concerned with grasping the minor premise of a practical syllogism (lec. 8), so related to phronesis; (iv) wisdom – not separate virtue, it is a combination of (i) and (iii) when they concern philosophy.

4. Practical wisdom again

Involves not just seeing but giving orders, to others and to oneself. ‘Giving orders to oneself’ is best interpreted as meaning that once one sees a situation then one will be motivated to act appropriately within the situation. A does not conceive of phronesis as being something purely judgemental, i.e. ‘This is how I should act’ but feeling no motivation to act at all. See 1143a8-10.

Ability to judge and act well comes only with experience (1143b11-14). Although A notes that theoretical excellence, in such things as maths, is available to the very young.

The relation between excellence of character and wisdom. At 1144a7-9 A says, ‘again our characteristic activity is achieved in accordance with practical wisdom and virtue of character; for virtue makes the aim right and wisdom the things towards it.’ Wisdom has more to do than merely decide the means. One might have an end in mind, e.g. help the needy, but one has to decide who is needy, how best to use one’s time and energy and the like, and not merely decide on the means to help the needy.

Also note that we need to rely on reasoning here. Character and what we are disposed to do simply isn’t enough. Again, we might be disposed to act in certain ways, but we might need to think how to act when confronted with new situations. We need wisdom to channel our dispositions. And, indeed, how we reason might well be affected by the types of people we are- -if we courageous, say, then certain features of a situation are likely to appear more salient than others and it is these that we will concentrate on when reasoning about what to do. A thinks that there is an intimate relationship between character and reason (wisdom).

Note 1144a24-26. ‘There is a capacity that people call cleverness. This is such as to be able to do the actions that tend towards the aim we have set before ourselves, and to achieve it. If the aim is noble then the cleverness is praiseworthy; if it is bad, then it is villainy. This is why both wise and villainous people are called clever. Practical wisdom is not the same as this capacity, thought it does involve it.’ So, the virtuous need to be clever so as to work out the detail for how they will act and do so effectively. But, bad people can be clever too.

Phronesis is related to common sense, but it concerns all of the virtues – how one should act in every sphere of human activity.

At 1144b-1145a A says that along with the other virtues of character (and only with them). So, one cannot be courageous and unfriendly and one cannot be just but intemperate. Why? A thinks that if one has practical wisdom then one has the ability to see what is right in all spheres of human activity. So, if one is virtuous in one area, then one will be virtuous in all areas. If you are vicious in any respect this will not allow you to see situations correctly. (A realizes that most will fall short of being virtuous.)

Theoria. It is clear that affecting his discussion, especially in the latter part of this chapter, is A’s conclusion in ch.s 12 and 13, that theoria, or contemplation, is the best life.

Theoretical wisdom is contemplation of all that is eternal and unchanging. A acknowledges that because it is concerned with the unchanging world, it cannot help us in the changing world and our production of eudaimonia (producing it for others and ourselves in certain situations). Of course, possessing it makes us eudaimon since it is a part of total excellence. (Remember, eudaimonia is constituted by such things as wisdom.) A says that theoretical understanding is important for practice, however. One has to do not merely what is right but do it because one knows it to be right and does so for the right reasons.

So, what of the influence of his thought that theoretical understanding is the best part of eudaimonia? Problem: A says that practical wisdom controls all of our life, so surely it is superior to theoretical wisdom? Answers that practical wisdom controls theoretical wisdom as medicine controls health, but medicine is not superior to health, it controls it as an aid, not as a master.

Lecture 8 – Akrasia (Bk. 7, Chs. 1-10)

1. So far...

Last week we were talking about phronesis and acting practically. There is a common but curious phenomenon called akrasia (or incontinence, or weakness of (the) will): namely doing something which one knows to be wrong (or less than the best). Note that the Greeks had no conception of ‘the will’ however. Everything is explained in terms of knowledge and action. But that doesn’t make much difference to our discussion here. E.g. chocolate cake.

2. Socratic background

Socrates denied that incontinence is possible. He thought that knowledge ought to rule in the soul and not be dragged about like a slave: knowledge cannot be overcome by desire. Whenever we seem to see a man doing what he knows to be wrong, the truth is that the man does not know that his act is wrong; he is in error about the right and the wrong. For Soc. all wrongdoing was ignorance (or revealed ignorance). Chocolate cake again.

There seems to be something to the Soc. view. However, as A says, Soc.’s view ‘contradicts the phenomena’ and contradicts what ordinary people think. But, note that A has to face up to the problem of akrasia for two reasons.

He holds, like Soc., that the true object of desire for man is the good (I.1-2). And A holds that knowledge is stronger than anything else in the mind of man. Soc. holds that all wrongdoing is ignorance, ignorance of the good. Does it follow for A, therefore, that all ignorant action involves involuntary ignorance of the same thing: ignorance of what constitutes eudaimonia? In short, how is A going to explain the (supposed) phenomena?

He wants to make ethics practical. But if people can know what the right thing to do is, yet fail to act on it, then it seems that the hope of making ethics practical is doomed. What is needed is some philosophical explanation as to why people might be akratic so as to (perhaps) decrease the instances of akrasia in the future (or at least acknowledge that it is a perfectly acceptable phenomenon)

So A thought that we did often do what we know to be wrong. But how does he argue for this conclusion? Note, in the solution that follows, A’s aim is to reconcile Soc.’s view with the common sense view and show that they are consistent with one another. How can he do this?

3. Rejection of a possible solution

He rejects (114sb31ff) as unacceptable the solution that the akratic only believes that a certain action is wrong (yet does it anyway) rather than knowing it. (Note: the thought here might be that belief reflects less certainty than knowledge, and so someone who says I only believe x is saying this because they are unsure. Note also that in modern day philosophy, ‘belief’ is used to mean something quite neutral – just a claim that we make- about anything; the existence of tables, chairs as well as gods. ‘Knowledge’ in modern day philosophy is something quite strict: a true belief that has tacked the truth is a suitable fashion.)

A rejects this way out of the problem because the person whose conviction is weak is pardoned, whereas the akratic is blameworthy: there must be more going on. To take this route is just another way of denying that akrasia can occur.

At (1146b24ff) he returns to this solution again and rejects it by saying that sometimes belief and knowledge are the same (some who believe are as certain as those who know).

4. A’s solution

There are three parts to A’s solution (see ch. 3). First two are most imp. One might consider them to be separate. Even if one did, then they are certainly not mutually exclusive. However, it is best to interpret them as being different explanations which (I) rely on each other and (II) together are intended to mount a convincing case. A’s account is more convincing if you appreciate that the three parts go together even though each one is complete in itself.

First part: Distinction between the time at which one possesses a certain piece of knowledge but are not using it and the time at which we both possess it and use it. For instance, at the start of this sentence you all have the knowledge (I presume) that Paris is the capital of France, but were not using it before I begun the sentence. Towards the middle of the sentence you were using it (in some fashion) but only because I brought it to mind. This is part of the important Aristotelian distinction between potentiality and act (or actuality). A is attempting to show that someone can know something without using it all the time. So I can know that choc cake is bad for me without ‘using’ that knowledge at the time I eat it; I am not contemplating the piece of knowledge when I should be doing so.

Of course, my ‘dispositional’ knowledge can be actualized: you can remind me not to eat the cake. But, on some occasions, merely telling me that will not be enough. I might be mad or drunk or asleep. For A, the akratic is similar to a drunk. A drunk might say ‘drinking is bad for me’, but she does not really know what she is saying. Similarly with the akratic. At the time of action I don’t really understand what I mean when I say ‘Cake is bad for me’.

This is an important point, but may not in itself suffice. To make this point stick we need some explanation as to what sort of knowledge a drunk or an akratic has.

Second part: Practical syllogisms. Theoretical syllogisms are arguments consisting of premises where the conclusion follows as a matter of necessity. The most famous Greek example is:

  • (P1) All men are mortal

  • (P2) Socrates is a man

  • Therefore, Socrates is mortal.

P1 is called the major premise, or universal premise. As a matter of style it comes first. It is concerned with general (or universal) claims relating, roughly, to all things of a certain type (in this case men). P2 is the minor premise, or particular premise. It is concerned with particular instances (or tokens) of a certain type (in this case, Socrates).

A thinks of a practical syllogism in the same way. Using a common example:

  • (P1) Sweet things are to be tasted

  • (P2) This is a sweet thing

  • Therefore, this should be tasted. [The conclusion might be the act of tasting]

In the ordinary case the above occurs. But what happens with akratic action? With the cake example, perhaps the major premise is something like ‘Fattening things are not to be tasted (because I am on a diet)’ but I ‘lose my grip’ on the relevant minor premise ‘This is a fattening thing’. I might know that the cake is a fattening thing but desire, like alcohol, has led me to a position where I do not really know what I am saying. My knowledge that fattening things should not be eaten is undiminished (thus keeping the Soc. idea). Yet desire overtakes my comprehension of the salient features of this particular situation. So, in both the first and second parts, according to A the agent both knows and does not know that her act is wrong.

Third part: Knowledge only in the most attenuated form. See 1147a10. (Really a repeat of what has gone before.) In effect it is merely a subdivision of the ‘possessing but not using’ distinction.

5. Is A’s solution satisfactory?

Arguably not. Sometimes the knowledge we have when we act in an akratic fashion doesn’t seem to change. But we should be careful in distinguishing between (mere) propositional knowledge and the sort of ‘practical’ knowledge that will result in action. A lack of action is a clear sign that one does not have the requisite practical knowledge, despite one having ‘similar’ propositional knowledge. However, A seems to win merely by changing the terms of the debate. But, arguably, A’s solution is designed to show precisely that there are different types of knowledge. He is attempting to explain how weakness of will is possible whilst claiming that some type of knowledge cannot be affected by desire.

6. Other bits

The rest of Bk VII 1-10 is straightforward. A distinguishes endurance to resist pain from strength to resist pleasurable temptations. Also note that A’s term akratic can be applied without qualification only where temperance is a virtue (eat, drink, sex). But why single out these pleasures in this way? Why is temp. applied only to these activities?

Lecture 9 – Pleasure (NE Bk 7, Chs 11-14; Bk 10, Chs 1-5)

1. So far...

Last week we discussed akrasia and mentioned akrasia at the end. But there is a general question that faces us: pleasure is part of happiness (eudaimonia) itself, but what is pleasure?

2. Preliminaries

There are two discussion of pleasure in NE. Common consent has it that they are both written by A but not intended to be part of the same book. At first sight they seem to say contradictory things. But, they are actually quite complementary.

Background. A was arguing against some Platonic philosophers who thought (unlike Plato) that pleasure was bad. A gives two arguments against them. (i) Some hold that pleasure is bad because it interferes with other things. A distinguishes between ‘proper’ pleasures (which one gets from the activity itself) and ‘foreign’ pleasures (which one does not, but which can interfere with one’s present activity). E.g. listening to music and studying. (ii) A says that some take ‘pleasure’ to mean only bodily pleasure, whereas there are many other good pleasures. A further points out that even the bodily pleasures are not bad. They are a necessary part of life. Only bad if taken to excess.

This background discussion is important because it introduces two key Aristotelian ideas: pleasure is an activity not a process and pleasure is an unimpeded activity.

3. Activity and process

A had three main criteria for distinguishing activities from processes.

If ‘a is ing’ entails ‘a has -ed’ then -ing is an activity. If not, then it is a process. To take some traditional Aristotelian examples, it is true that seeing a building is an activity, for one can have seen it in the past. But building isn’t an activity. True, one can have built in the past, but one cannot have built this building in the past (i.e. completed it). This links to the second criterion.

An activity may last for any length of time but does not take time (to complete it). A process, on the other hand, takes time. So seeing a building happens in an instant (but can last for ages). Building the building cannot happen in an instant but requires time.

An activity is complete in itself at any time and can go on for ever (in theory). A process is, by definition, incomplete. When it is completed it must end. Note that to say that an activity is complete this does not mean that I see all of the building, nor am I looking at the building exclusively (I could also be walking and chewing gum at the same time).

Note: A uses walking as an example of a process, but it seems to fit all the criteria for being an activity. By ‘walking’ A means ‘making a journey on foot’ – so the idea is that one has to go a certain distance to a certain place – at the end of the distance one is no longer walking to the place, one is there. (The Greeks had a different word for walking about with no particular destination in mind.)

Note – activities can be very passive things. Lying down is an activity according to Aristotle even though it involves no movement.

So... the thought is that pleasure is an activity. But why bother showing that? Local debate. In Greek medicine people thought that pain indicated a deficiency. They took thirst and hunger as the prime examples. One received pleasure when one quenched the thirst and, more generally, when one got rid of the deficiency. But a wanted to say that there were true and lasting pleasures (e.g. theoretical contemplation). Pleasure was more than just quenching thirst, more than just a process.

A gives a second reason for thinking that pleasure is an activity rather than a process. He thinks that only activities can be ends-in-themselves. In one sense, this is perfectly sensible. Activities are not other things: my end in seeing something is just the seeing of it (investigating something by seeing it is a different matter, I might be looking at something so as to investigate and decide something). Processes clearly are aimed at something other than themselves. Fine. But at 1094a4-5 A gives a different slant on the distinction. He says that ends are more valuable than things that bring them about. He wants to show that activities are more valuable than processes. Manufacturing examples is fine. But Urmson doesn’t like this slant because often we do things where the manufacture of the end product is relatively unimportant. What matters is the process of making it (e.g. building sandcastles, solving crossword puzzles).

Notorious problem. At VII.12, 1153a, A says that pleasure is not a ‘coming-to-be’ but an unimpeded activity of one’s natural state. In X.4, 1174b A says that pleasure ‘completes’ activities (i.e. is not an activity itself but a side effect of them, say). How to reconcile these ideas (which are in, note, two different books)? Why say in the later book that pleasure completes activity? G.E.L. Owen ‘Aristotelian Pleasures’ Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 72 (1971-2) says that there are two sense of pleasure: ‘Dining is one of my pleasures’ and ‘Dining gives me pleasure’. First sense: pleasure is an activity. Second sense: a mental state that occurs because of the activity. Own thinks that A had recognized this distinction by the time of Bk. X.

Mention of ‘completeness’ suggests a link to something from Bk. I. Pleasure might complete an activity so that one adds to their value. If it occurs to a certain degree then they will be lacking in nothing: not only is the activity valuable but it also gives happiness (recall all the stuff about eudaimonia – one can’t add to it).

4. But...

...are pleasures good? In one sense, of course they are. But remember that A was arguing against some that thought that pleasure wasn’t good. Remember also that A was a philosopher of common sense – most people think that pleasure is good.

He does make a distinction between some being good without qualification and those that aren’t. Unless I’m weird, I won’t find it pleasurable to take some nasty medicine to cure my illness, although I will take pleasure in having such medicine.

A also consider which pleasures are good. The answer is that pleasures are good if they have good sources (X.3, 1173b-1174a). The body is considered to be a ‘good source’ somewhat, good only if controlled by temperance. But what does A mean by ‘eating a meal in the right way’ (1153a)? One idea. The virtuous person doesn’t gain pleasure from the meal itself. After all, there is no virtue in eating for its own sake. Rather, she will gain pleasure from reflection on her temperance that is exhibited when she is eating. Recall that for A, eudaimonia is gained only from a life of virtue.

5. Hedonism

Hedonists believe that all that is good in life is pleasurable. Taken as a moral thesis, the claim is that the morally right action is the action which either best promotes (i.e. maximizes) or honours (i.e. does an act because it is pleasurable, no matter how much pleasure is produced) pleasure. Non-hedonists think that there is more to life than pleasure and, certainly, that morally right actions should not be defined in terms of pleasure. Of course, much of this debate turns on what is meant by ‘pleasure’. If you conceive pleasure to be very broad then, arguably, saving my mother from a burning building is morally right because it gives her and me pleasure, it fosters and instantiates respect which itself is only valuable because a society in which respect is common is pleasurable to live in, and so on. However, if you conceive it so broadly it empties it of any meaning and philosophical interest. E.g. we might well want to keep the notions of respect and pleasure separate. Indeed, there is a variety of pleasures (taking heroin, reading challenging poetry, slumbering after a large meal) which might be strange to classify together. If pleasure is read in a narrow manner then it looks less plausible to say that moral rightness should be defined in terms of it (sometimes you should do something whether it gives you pleasure or not).

Was A a hedonist? Certainly he didn’t believe that pleasures were good solely because they were pleasurable (which is what hedonists believe). A thought that the most important matter was excellences (virtues) and that one could get pleasure from these. One might question Aristotle and say that there is more to life than being virtuous (certainly the virtues that he listed). But if one remembers that A means excellences, then this makes sense. Of course, what makes sense is the thought that the pleasures of the virtuous life are the only one worth having. Note that A is also saying that the pleasures arising from virtue are the only real pleasures. This is more questionable.

Lecture 10 – Philia Bks 8-9

1. So far...

Last week: we were discussing pleasure and what A conceived it to be. The next couple of books are a slight departure, but a very important one...

2. Background

Philia is a difficult word to translate, although the traditional word used is ‘friendship’ (some people also use ‘love’). Neither is quite right as we’ll see.

Bks VIII and IX are themselves quite odd. They seem to be included without much thought. (In the Crisp trans. Bk VIII ends with the clumsy ‘Let us end our discussion of these questions there’, whilst Bk IX ends ‘So much, then, for our account of friendship. Next we must discuss pleasure’ which he does in Bk. X but which he has already discussed in Bk VII.) It is a bit of a cut and paste job. No reason to think that A didn’t write them, but they are awkwardly included.

3. Friendship

A has been discussing virtue all of the way through NE. His discussion is apt to seem egoistic: he has been concentrating on the virtues to the extent that they are good for the agent to possess. But what about helping others and living with them? What has A to say about that? In this chapter we find things which give his thoughts more balance.

For A, philia was a very broad notion. It encompasses more than just the people with which we are friendly. It is meant to refer to the (pleasant) relationships we have within the family (including the relations which animals have within their communities), the relations between people who have business dealings, the natural warmth and kinship we feel to others and many other types of social relationship.

A uses such a broad notion because he thought that man, at heart, was a political animal. Or, in other words, that man was best suited to living in a social community and playing an active role within it (‘active roles’ can take many different forms). A is very interested in the notion of citizenship. But he recognizes that the life of a community depends on a lot more than people being citizens and that their social lives encompass a lot more. Hence his attention to philia. The reason why philia is so important, then, is that A was trying to place his ethical ideas within a community. (Remember, he was addressing his ideas to people who had been properly brought up, people who were from within his own society.) A thinks that philia is an important aspect of the virtuous life. He tells us that no one would choose to live without friends (understood in a broad way) even if he had many other good things (1155a 5-6).

In VIII.3 A says that there is a distinction between true friendships and what we might call passing acquaintances. For instance, one might have business dealings with someone and leave it at that. If one does leave it at that then the friendship will die since the only reason for the relationship existing is the business association. True friendship, however, although it can have the usefulness of the relationship as a side effect, goes somewhat deeper. We value being with people for themselves not for the benefits we might obtain. Note that some of A’s views regarding the treatment of inferiors and the love they should have of their superiors are not particularly agreeable. So we should understand that only true friendship is a virtue (although it seems likely that passing acquaintances, based on such things as wit, will involve virtues – wit for instance).

4. Political society

Ch. 10. It is worth commenting on the different types of state which A distinguished. He thought that there were three types of good state (in ascending order of goodness): Monarchy, Aristocracy and Timocracy. (Timocracy is a form of government where power is widely and evenly distributed but only amongst those who have property (i.e. they have to take responsibility for their decisions because their decisions will affect themselves).) The three deviations of the three good states are (in respective order): tyranny, oligarchy and democracy. So monarchy is good, but can become bad if the monarch becomes a tyrant. Oligarchy is where the aristocrats distribute what belongs to the city ‘contrary to merit’ – normally to themselves. Why did A hate democracy?

A democracy was where everyone made decisions, but no one took responsibility. Athens had seen some bad excesses of democracy. A thought democracy ill-organized. He thought of democracy as the least worst of the three deviations, whilst tyranny was the worst.

A gives illustrations of these states. Monarchy and tyranny resemble the relationship between father and son. Aristocracy and tyranny resemble the relationship between husband and wife. (Where the wife is allowed a proper share than this is good; where the husband dominates, this is bad.) Timocracy and democracy is like the relationship between brothers: a household where no one holds the upper hand and commands the most respect is like democracy.

5. Justice

A note about justice. Recall that we questioned A’s doc. of the mean and that A himself saw that it had its limitations, i.e. when he was discussing justice. At the start of Bk. VIII he seems to be worried about the importance he has given to justice at the start of the book. He says that friendship is more important than justice since if people are friends then there is no need for justice – there will be peace in the community because all people want what is best for their friends. A obviously thinks, arguably rightly, that justice is some external arbitration (or court) on people’s relationships. Yet, be careful. A isn’t rejecting justice completely: in a city (even a relatively small city-state), matters will arise between people who are not acquainted and who are not, in this sense, friends. Of course, A is right to stress that it is important for a community that there is some strong sense of friendship in it. But there has to be justice as well.

6. Egoism

Question raised above: Is A an egoist? Related to this question there is another problem. A says that genuine disinterested love is the thing that governs the behaviour of true friends (IX.4). A friend seeks the good of his friend for his friend’s sake, just as a mother seeks the good life for her child. (Disinterested in that, no matter what the friend wants, one will do it. One loves the friend for herself, not for what she is or does. Although there is a qualification to this as we’ll see.) Problem: A says that the good life contains philia, and that philia contains disinterested care for the interest of one’s friend. So that means that the good life cannot be identified with the life that is most eudaimon for him who lives it. But A has identified the good life with eudaimonia. Is there a contradiction?

No. A says that the features of friendship such as disinterested care for welfare, sharing joy and humour and the like – are part of the good man’s relation to himself as well as to others. So A thinks that the good man must love himself. This sounds awful and very egoistic. But sounds less so when we realize that A might have meant something like being content with who one is, likes one’s traits and so on. This idea is quite acceptable today.

7. Another question

A says in VIII.2 that there are three things that are worth loving (i.e. that are valuable): the good, the pleasant and the useful. There are three types of friendship which correspond to these three objects. Friendships for pleasure (e.g. ) and the useful (e.g. business) do not involve true friendship. So, true friendship can occur only between the good or virtuous. (The other two kinds count as quasi-friendship because they resemble true friendship, but they aren’t examples of friendship really.) Question: Is there a difference between loving someone because one finds them pleasant and loving someone because one finds them virtuous? Recall that for A (Bk I.7), exercising virtue is doing what is characteristic of humanity (the highest characteristic of humanity). What makes me most human is exercising the virtues. And a thinks that humans are to be identified with their reason (understood widely) rather than their passing emotions. Reason is the basis and source of the virtues, but not the source of utility or pleasure. In the end, it seems a crazy view. But it does show how his ideas concerning reason and the like come into play.

Lecture 11 – Eudaimonia Again Bk. 10, Chs. 8-9

1. So far…

Last week we thought about pleasure. We’ve already thought about the good life, but A is going to say some more things about it.

2. General outline

A has been discussing eudaimonia and what it is, what elements are part of it. Remember that A thinks that there are many parts of the eudaimon life: wealth, good lucks, status, as well as the exercise of the virtues, the various excellences. (Fulfilling the natural function of being a human.) But, although all of these elements are necessary for the good life, A thinks that there are certain general activities, ‘paths of life’ or dominant activities as we might call them, which are better than others and one which is the best.

A lists three candidates which are commonly thought to be the best life: those of sensual pleasure, of political activity and public service and, thirdly, of contemplation (theoria). He dismisses the first very quickly as being a silly idea. The main two contenders are the second and the third.

But isn’t it strange to say that eudaimonia consists of many different elements and yet emphasize one as being most important? Isn’t there some sort of tension, particularly when one thinks that a life in which someone has a lot of sensual pleasure can exercise (what A thinks of as) the virtues as much as the contemplative life? Well, the only answer to be given here is that in all of our lives we might choose one dominant activity to pursue, but in choosing one such activity that does not mean that we cannot choose other activities. As a philosopher we might also be a crossword addict or a cook. However, very often, dominant means dominant. Being a rocket scientist or a professional lexicographer requires dedication. Not many heart surgeons are barristers. So, one must exercise the virtues, but must also choose the dominant activity in one’s life with care, for there are better and worse such activities (many of which might be compatible with the virtues and even require them for their exercise). All that A is deciding between are these dominant activities as to which one will lead to a life that is best.

But why contemplation and political activity? Remember that A is addressing his remarks to citizens, those who would probably be the best brought up people, those who were of the slave-owning class. Although these aristocrats (for that is what they were to all intents and purposes) were not against pursuing science or the arts in an amateurish way (in the sense of it being a hobby and not being paid for it), they were against doing such things as a trade of profession. In point of fact, they were men of means who did not need for money. As it happened, most of them devoted themselves to public affairs (and a few to philosophy). A’s audience would have accepted his alternatives without question. A is just wanting to see which of the two lives is best. And, as we read, he thinks that the contemplative life, the life of theoria, is the best.

3. Theoria

Why does A think that the life of theoria is the best possible? A says that the life of theoria is most like the life of God. Before we go any further it is wise to point out that A obviously wouldn’t have had a Christian or Jewish conception of God, but that he was monotheistic.

Why God? Why is this important? A thinks that men should strive to be immortal and live according to the highest good. The thought being that God is surely going to have the most eudaimon life.

But why God and contemplation? In Bk. VI, A says that theoretical knowledge is knowledge of the unchanging and eternal nature of the universe. A also said that knowledge must start from intuitive knowledge, a sort of intellectual perception whereby one grasps the first principles of life and the world. (Deduction is reasoning in a logical way from premises that are already known, e.g. the syllogism.) For A, contemplation was the exercise of the virtue of theoretical knowledge. Note that A thought of it as being an activity, not a process. Deduction is a process: one starts from the premises or axioms and one works towards a conclusion. Contemplation, meanwhile, has no definite end point. Contemplation as A was using the word meant the enjoyment of having knowledge, not the gathering of it.

…And A thought of God as having pure theoretical, intuitive knowledge (see 1096a24-25). God contemplates the nature of the universe. And A says quite a bit about the fact that God is not a man (one should not anthropomorphize Him). So God cannot be brave, or just. And God will not be concerned with the changing or ‘becoming’ part of the world, the fact that the world is in constant flux. Instead, God is concerned only with the unchanging eternal aspect of the world.

A though that man had some aspect of God in him since, although he is dependent on his senses and is not perfect, he does have the capacity for intuitive thought.

Note that A also justifies the contemplative life by claiming that it is a life which is self-sufficient (1177a 27) and less expensive than other lives (1178a 24).

It’s worth underlining that, despite the pol. life being a worthy one, it is a life that is interested in change and flux. It is not interested in the eternal. (That’s one interpretation anyway. See below.)

4. Phronesis

It is worth discussing how theoria connects with phronesis (practical wisdom). The two are different. The life that is eudaimon has to be one of practical wisdom. But its importance lies in the particular – what to do in this individual situation. Theoria, on the other hand, is concerned with the general – what the whole universe is like, how everything links to everything else, what principles underlie life, and the like.

5. Problems

If A is claiming that the life of theoria is the best, then why defend it with reference to God? Why use such an extreme argument? The answer is that it was important to the Greeks that the best life be one that imitated God.

More of a problem. God does not need to engage in deductive reasoning and using proof – he can see intuitively what is true. But man’s intuitive reason is, obviously, of a more limited nature. The problem is that if man has to attempt to mirror God’s contemplative knowledge, then he will have an impoverished intellectual life. Indeed, in Bk. VI A says that the contemplative life includes things such as knowledge derived from proof. But then it is clear that A can’t defend his claim that the contemplative life is best with reference to God. Indeed, one might have to extend the notion of the ‘contemplative life’ even further given A’s interest in biology. Is the contemplative life merely the life of an academic and researcher? If so, then this makes the reference to God even more irrelevant.

At the beginning of ch. 9 A seems to be saying that contemplation is not the goal of the enquiry. In other words, it seems that A is saying only that the academic life is the best career to choose, not that it is the only good. This puts much of the previous argument regarding contemplation into perspective.

6. Another interpretation

Just in passing it is worth mentioning a slightly different interpretation of A on contemplation made by Amelie Rorty in essay 20 in her (1980) edited collection. Her claim is not that this is what A says, but that it is an Aristotelian interpretation of what he says. She thinks that A’s dominant concern is that ethics should be practical – to gain some understanding of what we do and how we act so as to act better. There seems little reason, then, to think that the contemplative life and the life of political service should stand so opposed. Can’t one be both? Can’t a public servant also involve herself in contemplation of what is eternal and unchanging? At one point (1140b7-11) A says that men like Pericles are thought to possess phronesis because they also possess theoria. Rorty goes into much more detail than I can do here, but one might be suspicious given what has been said above. After all, there seems to be a difference between theoria and phronesis. And A doesn’t say that one can’t be both. He is merely thinking about which it is best to emphasize. One might wish to criticize him by saying that in a society we need both practical law-makers and philosophers, but that is a different point (about having lots of different people, not that everyone should able to do lots of different things).

Lecture 12 – Conclusions

1. This lecture

In this lecture we’ll try to pull together some of the themes in A, ask a few questions and think again about virtue theory, deontology and consequentialism.

2. Themes

Practice rather than theory. Remember that A wants the NE to be a book of ethical practice rather than theory. But, even admitting that he is from a different age, he hasn’t told us whether abortions are permissible for instance. Nor is there much in the way of detailing when it is permissible to kill people generally. What sort of practical help is that?

What A means by practice is reflection on how we live our lives and what we do. The thought is that by understanding what we do and how we act (and what the nature of man is), then we can live better.

This links to the virtues. Of course, A gives some kind of guidance. He tells us what types of virtues (or excellences) we should promote in ourselves. Making such a list, and reflecting and discussing the elements of such a list might have practical benefit. Of course, we might well not agree with the list that A gives us. But that shouldn’t detract from the practical benefit that might accrue from such a list in general. See below.

Perception and principles. A very important theme in the NE is that one cannot learn to be ethical (or lead an excellent life) by following a few detailed principles. Life is far too complex for that. Philosophical reflection not only gives us this conclusion, but, when reflecting about particular cases and drawing conclusions about them (individually) shows us the way in which we should try to think when we are faced with new situations.

This theme in A is of particular importance to a debate raging in ethics at the present, between particularists and principle-ists. Reflection on the virtues has importance for this debate as well. See below.

3. A central question

A question often raised about the NE: Has A successfully linked ‘living well’ to ‘being good’? In a way this is a strange question to ask. A probably wouldn’t have seen the difference between them. To live an excellent life was to live a good life. The more modern interpretation on this question is, of course, what is the link between the excellences which A gives us (or which could be given by anyone), and living a morally or ethically good life, a life which is admired not because one is a fantastic athlete or a great orator, but because one treats others well, is kind etc.?

There are a number of things going on here. (i) Remember that A’s audience were the noblemen (and the younger ones at that), so anything he says would be aimed at making them better people rather than the populace as a whole. (ii) It is still important to mention that his time was different from ours and the needs of a Greek city-state are different from that in a post-Enlightenment, capitalist, democratic country. So, again, the difference between the two might not have been apparent to him.

These two points said, the NE does gives us some idea on what it is to be ethically (or morally) good. Ideas about the virtues and about ethical perception are very important, as is something that connects them – the doc. of the mean.

Of course, this is not to say that A’s comments will convince everyone (no philosopher has ever done that). And one has to take account of the caveats above and realize that some of the things he says do seem wrong. But it would be strange (and wrong) to say that we could not learn anything from A about ethics and that many of his comments about what it is to live well do not have import for how one should live ethically (that is, treat others and oneself).

4. Virtue ethics, consequentialism and deontology

  • Remember that consequentialists think something like: an action is morally right if and only if it maximize good consequences.

  • And deontologists think that actions are morally right or wrong if they are of some particular type (e.g.s cases of murder and lying, or particular types of murder and lying).

So, in a number of situations, conseq. and deont. will recommend courses of action that are opposed. E.g. Alf and the sheriff.

The debate between consequentialists and deontologists might turn on a number of things (good candidate = promotion (conseq.) versus honouring (deont.) of values). But note that, for the most part, both theories might recommend the same course of action. They differ because they offer different reasons or justifications for why the course of action is best.

So consequences and types of action. One element left to consider is the agent herself: what sort of characteristic does she exemplify by performing this action? Or, to put it differently, what virtue does she exemplify. Often, virtue theory is taken to offer a third type of justification: actions are bad if they mean that the agent is exemplifying some bad virtue, dishonesty for instance, and this (not the type of action or the consequences) is of chief concern. Note, virtue theorists are more likely to side with deonts. as regards the honouring/promotion debate: this act is best because it honours or instantiates a certain type of virtue, not that we are trying to promote as much of this type of virtue as possible.

Many think that virtue theory is not just another type of justification. (i) It emphasizes practical wisdom and perception rather than following principles (see below). (ii) Concentrating on justification has too many connotations of modern moral theory – trying to find the right act, the act which it is one’s duty to perform. This is very un-Greek and trying to shoehorn any insights gained from ancient virtue ethics into answers to such questions is misguided. Instead, virtue ethics wants us to step outside of simple justification and try to gain some understanding of what it is to live well and live with others. How one can flourish and develop. (Some people think that this is just avoiding the question. Well, justification is an important part of our lives. But note that sometimes it does seem right to say the un-modern thing: e.g. there are no right answers in this case. E.g. of conjoined twins in September 2000.)

An oft-given crit. of virtue theory: It doesn’t give practical answers. Do the honest thing or the just thing doesn’t actually tell us what to do. But (i) perception; (ii) neither, in fact, do conseq. or deont. All three theories are on all fours here

Another crit. of virtue theory: virtues can conflict. This is a debate concerning the desirability of having a nice clear decision procedure. As far as virtue theory is concerned, yes, virtues can conflict. The same is true for sets of rules that will (probably) be given by deonts. One way around this problem is to have a hierarchical list of virtues and rules. This seems implausible as a good description of what morality is like. (Is it always better to be honest than to be just, say? Is killing always worse than lying? – lots of issues involved here.) At first glance this problem doesn’t seem to affect conseqs. But it does. They have to decide what they mean by ‘good conseqs.’ In order to have a nice, clear decision procedure then they will have to define ‘good consequences’ in a very narrow, detailed way. But, then they run up against the implausibility problem: Is it really always right to maximize pleasure (and pleasure understood in a certain, particular way)? One might think it morally good to promote lots of things (beauty, justice, friendship, honesty), but then we lose the nice, clear decision procedure. Seems like a three-way draw again.

5. General conclusion

We can learn a lot from the NE despite the separation of time and type of moral community. Index Page

Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics Book 1