Introduction to Aristotle
Plan of the Lecture
I. Aristotle's Life and Work
II. Beginning of the Nicomachean Ethics
I. Aristotle's Life and Work
A. Life and Times
- Aristotle was born in 384 B.C. in Macedonia. He was therefore born 15 years after the death of Socrates, Plato's teacher. Attentive readers will have noticed the following remark:
"We had perhaps better consider the universal good and discuss thoroughly what is meant by it, although such an inquiry is made an uphill one by the fact that the Forms have been introduced by friends of our own." (I.6)
- He was not a citizen of Athens; he was a resident alien.
- Aristotle broke with Plato on metaphysical questions (specifically Plato's theory of the Forms), defending a diametrically opposed view. As it is said: "Everyone is born either a Platonist or an Aristotelian"
- Aristotle opened a school of his own, called the Lyceum. (Plato's school, you will recall, was the Academy).
- Like Plato, Aristotle was interested in all areas of philosophy and left writings on virtually every philosophical topic.
- Unlike Plato’s corpus, however, only unpolished lecture notes remain from Aristotle's work. The arguments in these notes are extremely compressed and difficult.
- Aristotle was tutor to Alexander the Great, a Macedonian whose empire covered known world, including Athens. The death of Alexander precipitated anti-Macedonian backlash in Athens, and Aristotle fled Athens and died a year after Alexander.
B. Introduction to Aristotle's Moral Philosophy
- Like Plato, Aristotle interested in the question, "What is it to be a good human being?"
- Also like Plato, Aristotle held that:
- There are right answers to these questions.
- These answers are rationally defensible by philosophical argument.
- The best political society should be structured to lead to virtue.
- Also like Plato, Aristotle's ideal political society was a relatively small city-state with high degree of moral and cultural homogeneity. Aristotle can presuppose a common cultural heritage; he can talk confidently of generally held opinions
- Notice, as you read, that considering the popular opinion is important to Aristotle’s method.
II. Beginning of the Nicomachean Ethics
A. Construing the Question: Chapters 1 and 4
- As we said, Aristotle is interested in the question, "What is it to be a good human being?" This is equivalent to: "What is it to lead a good human life?" and "What is it to live well?"
- Chapter 1: Aristotle thinks of life as an activity, like playing golf, basketball or musical instrument; like carpentry and welding. Just as inquirers would learn what it is to golf well by learning what is to excel at performance of that activity, so the philosopher learns what it is to live well by learning what it is to excel at the activity of living.
- Question: How would we investigate excellence at these other activities?
- To determine what it is to perform these well, we must first determine the goal of the activity.
- We do this by looking at what people aim at, examining our own lives, and examining the opinions of the expert.
- Example: Suppose we want to learn what it is to be a good golfer. Proceed by asking people who play the game what they are trying to do. Then we learn what we can about the circumstances of the game. Then we try to play the game ourselves. Finally, we watch those who play, especially those generally regarded good players.
- This example is instructive, for was we observe, we learn:(5) Teasing out example is instructive, for as we observe, we learn:
- Golf integrates a number of subordinate skills-- putting, driving, chipping, etc.
- Many players know what the end is but lack the ability to attain it.
- Others know the end, but seek it in wrong way. For example, they might master some part of the game by holding themselves to the wrong standards.
- Because golf is highly rule-governed, it is possible to specify with some precision what good golf is and who is best at it.
- Living, Aristotle points out, is an activity, or a family of activities. To find out what it is to live well, we proceed as we would to find out what it is to golf well: we collect opinions from people about what they are trying to do; we learn what we can about the circumstances of the activity, such as the demands of family life, social life, material needs, physical ills and mortality. We look at our own experience of living. Finally, we look at those who are generally acknowledged to live well, the wise, who are experts in living.
- As we do so, we discover:
- The activity of living contains a number of subordinate activities--family life, having friends, the making of money, the enjoyment of culture, play.
- To lead a good life, these activities have to be properly integrated or harmonized, with some subordinated to others.
- Some people seem to know what the end is, but lack ability to attain it. Perhaps they grew up in the wrong circumstances or they have mental or physical illness.
- Many people pursue the wrong things--they pursue the end of one part of life: wealth, power, honor, or sensual satisfaction.
- Unlike golf, life is not rule-governed, we cannot expect precision.
- Chapter 4. When we look at what people aim at, we find a general consensus that the end is happiness. This raises one of two problems:
- There are different ideas about what constitutes happiness, e.g., wealth, virtue, honor, health. There are also different ideas at different times, e.g., health when sick. These different ideas need to be examined (Chapter 5).
- This statement seems to be platitudinous, and therefore possibly vacuous (Chapter 7)
B. An Exciting Preview and A Parenthetical Note
- Aristotle’s thesis: Happiness is a life of virtuous activity.
- Happiness is the end or the objective of life. Life is an activity like playing, building, studying. The objective of life is perfoming activity of life well.
- Therefore, happiness is performing activity of life well. Acting well means living life of wisdom, justice, courage.
- Therefore, happiness is living a life of wisdom, justice, courage.
- It is important to distinguish a state of mind, or condition, from an activity.
- Examples of states of mind or conditions include drunkenness, health, and being at peace.
- Examples of activities include: playing violin, building bookcase, studying philosophy
- Happiness is not a state of mind or condition. These things could be produced by drugs, maintained while sleeping. And no one leading a good life while drunk or asleep.
- Parenthetical Note: to study ethics we "must have been brought up in good habits" (I.3), and we must not be too young (I.3). What would Aristotle's reasons for thinking these things be?
C. Examining Different Ideas of Happiness - Chapter 5
- In order to establish Aristotle’s thesis, we must consider different ideas of happiness:
- To speed consideration, we can note that despite the great variety, there are really only three types of life:
- The life "men lead, most men, and men of the most vulgar type" even "some in high places". This is the life of pleasure or enjoyment. On this view, happiness = pleasure.
- "The political life" in which happiness = honor. This is the life spent in pursuit of political responsibilities.
- "The contemplative life" in which happiness = knowledge. This is the life spent cultivating the mind.
- Aristotle later adds "the life of money-making".
- The Life of Contemplation, Aristotle says, "we shall consider later" this leaves (1), (2) and (4). Let us consider them in turn.
- Life of Pleaures. Aristotle dismisses this as a "life suitable for beasts".
- Life of Money-Making. Aristotle rejects this as well. Money-making is done out of necessity. That is to say, money is always sought for the sake of something else. Specifically, it is sought for honor or for pleasure. But this means that these things must be more desirable than money.
- Life of Honor. The problem with the life of honor, Aristotle says, is that no one seeks just to be honored. We seek honor from those who know us, from those who honor us for right reasons. Specifically, we seak honor for our virtues. Therefore, virtue is the real good of which honor is sign.
- Notice where else these arguments may apply: intimacy, feeling important.
D. The "Man’s Function" Argument - Chapter 7
- So at this point we know that: living well is a life of happiness; the life of virtue is better than honor or money-making; and the life of pleasure is a life suitable for beasts. Where do we go from here?
- Key Insight: Functionalism
- Note first that things human beings make have functions: the function of knife is to cut, the function of money is as a medium of exchange. Ways of life have functions as well: a carpenter builds, a doctor heals.
- Aristotle thinks that natural things have functions, or natural goals: (i) When a thing fulfills its function, it is said to be doing well; it is a good member of its kind. (ii) The function of plants and animals is simple, to live and reproduce.
- Aristotle concludes that human beings, as natural things, must have a specific function as well. (i) When a human fulfills its function, it is said to be living well; it is a good human being. (ii) So, to learn what the good life is, we must see what the human function is.
- What can the function of human beings be? It must be an activity in which only human beings engage. According to Aristotle, rational activity, "an active life of the element that has a rational principle," is the only activity peculiar to humans.
- Therefore, "the function of man is an activity of soul which follows or implies a rational principle" (I.7). The function of human beings is to perform acts as reason dictates. "The function of the good man [is] the good and noble performance of these" (I.7).
- To be a good person = to fulfil the human function = to perform acts characterized by excellence = to perform acts of virtue ("over a complete life").
E. Beginning Book II: A Moral Virtue Is:
- A disposition of reason and the emotions,
- A settled disposition, i.e., a habit,
- A habit of choosing the mean with respect to food and drink, dangerous activity, etc.,
- The person who has acquired the habit experiences pleasure in choosing rightly.
Citation: Weithman, P. (2006, September 19). Lecture 08 Notes. Retrieved March 08, 2014, from Notre Dame OpenCourseWare Web site: http://ocw.nd.edu/philosophy/introduction-to-philosophy/lectures/lecture-08-notes.
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