Discussion Questions Please prepare to answer the following questions and discuss Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, Books 1.1-103 and 2.104-275.As you prepare, make sure to write down the line numbers where you find your answers. All questions and answers refer to the views of Aristotle (i.e., every question and answer implies the statement “according to Aristotle”), unless specified otherwise.
Suppose that I ask you the question about anything you want “Why do you want this?” and I continue to ask that question and you continue to answer. For example-
Q: Why do you want money?
A: In order to do travel.
Q: Okay, why do you want to travel?
A: In order to see new people and places.
And so on ….
At what ultimate answer will you always arrive? Or, to put the question differently, what does he say is the ultimate goal of all intelligent activity? Also, what do you think Aristotle means here by “intelligent”?
What function is unique to man (i.e., not shared by animals)?
If we perform this function (i.e., the one that you just identified) well, then we are good at being what?
Note that at 1.44 Aristotle equates being-good-at-being-human with virtue.
And, since he has equated being-good-at-being-human with rational activity, we now have the equation “rational activity = virtue.”
Note further that this equation is the first statement in an implied syllogism. A syllogism is a logical proposition in which a third statement necessarily follows from two preceding ones. In short, if A = B, and if B = C, then A = C. The most famous example is: “If Socrates is a man, and if all men are mortal, then Socrates is mortal.
The second premise of the implied syllogism comes at Book 1.49. Namely, Aristotle says (in reverse order): virtue (or specifically virtuous activity) = happiness. What, then, is the third part of the implied syllogism that Aristotle omits, if we accept that the first two statements read as follows?
If rational activity = virtue,
And if virtue = happiness,
Then ____________ = ______________.
If Aristotle’s reasoning here seems incomplete, convoluted, or unclear, note that at 1.46-48 he effectively warns us against expecting logical precision in his current discussion. Can you identify any earlier lines in Book 1 where he does the same?
Does Aristotle value contemplation of virtue as highly as virtuous activity?
What can undermine happiness, even if a person practices rational activity?
At 1.95-103 Aristotle discusses the “appetitive part of the soul,” as one division of the soul’s irrational side. What aspect of the human mind according to Freud do you think this appetitive part of the soul most closely parallels? Please explain. In the same passage Aristotle discusses “the rational part” of the soul, against which the appetitive part resists and instead urges a person towards the fulfillment of desires. What aspect of the human mind according to Freud do you think this “rational part” of the soul most closely parallels? Please explain.
Aristotle identifies two types of virtue at 2.104. What are they, and how is each achieved?
At 2.129-45, Aristotle provides (what scholars refer to as) the doctrine of the ethical mean by which we can determine the moral virtues that we should habitually exercise. (Note that there is the larger moral virtue of rational action, and the innumerable, smaller virtues, some of which are moral in nature, such as bravery, and some of which are not, such as a proper diet.) Please explain this doctrine using bravery as your ethical mean. What are the two qualities of which it is a mean? Which of these qualities is characterized by defect and which by excess? What does Aristotle say about the relation of pain and pleasure to these qualities?
Can we perform virtuous acts without ourselves being virtuous (and thus without making ourselves happier than we were before)? Please explain your answer with a concrete example.
Is the mean always the same for everyone? Please explain using as a mean “the proper amount of food.”
From which extreme should we first depart in order to achieve a mean, the extreme closer to or further from the mean? Does this extreme typically involve pain or pleasure? Please provide a concrete example.
Please choose a single word to identify the quality or state of mind you think Aristotle wants us to achieve by reading Books 1.1-103 and 2.104-275 of the Nicomachean Ethics.
Can you think of a virtue (big or small) that does not represent a mean between two extremes? Explain.
Does Aristotle’s theory of the ethical mean strike you as practical (i.e., something you could apply in your own life) or impractical? Explain.