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Ethics - Book One - Aristotle

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Themes: Happiness, Virtue.

 

Aristotle’s Ethics is an inquiry into what human actions aim at, and into how humans can be happy. 

Book One begins by indicating that “every art and every inquiry, and …every action as well as choice, is held to aim at some good” (Chapter One, 1094a1-2). Noticing that there is always an end (or goal) to human activities, Aristotle argues that if “there is some end of our actions that we wish for on account of itself” (Chapter Two, 1094a18), and everything else we want for the sake of this end, then this end would be the highest good for humans, and the knowledge of this good would be highly valuable. He indicates that the political art, being the most authoritative, would aim at the human good. Happiness seems to be what every actions and choice aims at, “for we always choose it on account of itself and never on account of something else” (Chapter Seven, 1097b1). Even though we choose honor, pleasure, intellect, and virtue on their own account, “we choose them also for the sake of happiness” (1097b5). Therefore the human good must be happiness. 

The rest of Book One examines what happiness is. Aristotle notes that “happiness belongs among the things that are honored and complete” (Chapter 12, 1102a1), and he argues to a definition of happiness as “a certain activity of soul in accord with complete virtue” (Chapter 13, 1102a5). It is emphasized that this virtue (or excellence) is that of a human being, and in particular the virtue of the soul rather than the body. This means that the politician, who has the job of being concerned with the good of human beings, “ought to know in some way about the soul” (1102a17). 

 

Opening questions:

 

What is happiness?

What is the human good? 

What is being investigated here?

Why does Aristotle think it is important to search out the human good? 

Suggested Pairing:

 

Plato, The Republic; Aeschylus, The Oresteia

Series on Happiness:

Seneca, On the Happy Life; Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics; Gospel of St. Matthew, Sermon on the Mount and The Beatitudes; Augustine, The Happy Life; Julien La Mettrie, Man a Machine; Bentham,  An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation; Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents; Bertrand Russell, Conquest of Happiness; Kringelbach and Berridge, The Neurobiology of Pleasure and Happiness; Steven Pinker, How the Mind Works.

Feedback:

 

We welcome your comments. How did your seminar go? What can we add or modify to the resource to be more helpful to you?

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