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Aristotle (384-322 BCE):
What is Virtue?
PHIL 1003
Semester I 2009-10
Central idea to ethics and politics
of both Plato and Aristotle.
Slaves vs Citizens:
Plato and Aristotle
Low vs High music
Application of idea of hierarchy
Logocentrism of higher classes
Preferred instrument (children only):
the Kithara [lyre]
A base instrument:
the Auloi [Pipes]
A word about democracy
Modern (liberal)
Question re democracy
• Should the interest of the minority be subject to
the interest of the majority?
• We know that for a society to function well,
individuals have to sacrifice some of their
– E.g. Aristotle’s polis [Dr Cook’s comment].
• In democracy the minority is subject to the
• Is that right?
• My answer to this question is a partly yes,
and a partly no.
• It depends on the situation. If it is always
right to outweigh the minority, are we right
to divide up Mr Li Ka Shing's property
• [on what grounds—just because the
majority wants to]?
Reply to Plato
• The rulers in China are quite unscrupulous - they are corrupt
and take money from their people and then spend
it having big feasts, having mistresses, etc.
• I guess that's when the 'reason' part of our society goes wrong
because there is no criterion or a standard on how to choose our
leaders in Plato's way. And then the people just do not know what to
do or do not have sufficient education to air their views on serious
social issues.
• In Chinese society, people are afraid of authority or power; it's in
our nature because we were brought up this way and there would be
no good in making objections to the upper class or even our fathers.
But is [China’s?] communism similar to Plato's ideal Utopia? I think it
only applies if the leaders are good enough--but again, there is no
good enough.
What causes downfall of Plato’s best regime?
• Inevitable degeneration of best regime (Rep., 546a-e);
• Fault of imperfect matings: how can this happen?
– Platonic numerology and astrology;
– Calculate the ‘number’ for a human creature; no one
understands it!
– Matings out of sync with this number;
• Result: children fall short of ideal;
• Classes become mixed, no more pure golds;
• Passionate pursue their ambitions, creating oligarchy
– rule of the few in their own self-interest.
Aristotle’s Contributions
• Major ethical theorist;
• Major political thinker;
– theorist of democracy: qualified approval
– Cf. Platonic critique of democracy = rule of the
worst elements;
• Biologist;
• Used scientific method to analyze political
• Logic = the ‘organon’, or tool.
Aristotle’s life
• 384 BCE born in Stagira (Macedonia)
– therefore could not become an Athenian citizen;
• Son of a court physician, Nicomachus;
• 367-347 studied in Plato’s Academy, Athens
• 347 Plato dies; Aristotle in Assos, Mytilene and
– In Asia Minor studies marine organisms;
• 342 tutors the Macedonian prince, Alexander;
– little discernible influence
• 335 returns to Athens, founds Lyceum;
• 322 dies in Chalcis.
Ancient Greece
School of Athens by Raphael (16th cent.)
What this picture illustrates
Plato pointing at sky,
Aristotle at earth.
Aristotle’s Method
• Empirical and concrete: based in biology
– Make observations of phenomena
– Draw conclusions on that basis
• Social and ethical questions:
– examine actual views on an issue or topic;
• Find out what the telos, or goal of sth is;
– That tells you its nature, and
– What its good is: everything has its goal
– This is empirical.
An acorn’s telos
Aristotle’s idea of The Good
• No one good or Form of the Good (cf. Plato)
• Many goods—the good of each thing, organism,
person, e.g.
The good of cats
The good of trees
The good of society
The good of philosophers
• The good of a thing is determined by examining
its nature:
– We understand the nature of a thing by looking at its
goal or telos.
What Plato and Aristotle share:
soul-society analogy
Soul: 3 pts:
– reason,
– passion
– desires
Society: 3 pts:
Soul: 2 pts:
Society: 2 pts:
rulers (rotation among
ruled: citizens and others
Aristotle’s view of the soul
Aristotle’s Hierarchy of Beings
• 3 kinds of soul:
– Vegetative: plants
– Sensitive (having senses): animals
– Rational and active: man
These ideas still used in the 17th century by Descartes.
What is unique to man is reasoning ability and his highest
good/goal/telos is to exercise that ability in action.
Plants and animals have different goals than man because
they have different natures/souls.
Hierarchy of goods, sciences
• Critique of Plato’s Form of the Good (1096a15)
– Not one good, but many
• Good of city at top of ‘hierarchy of goods’
– Good of individual subordinate (NE, 1.2)
– Why?
• Not one science of good, but many (1096a30)
• Controlling science = political science
– All other sciences subordinate—generalship,
household mgmt, rhetoric
– Why?
What is the Good for man?
• For sake of which we do things
• Many of our activities are instrumental,
only means to the end
• Characteristics of the Good for man:
– Self-sufficient
– ‘Choiceworthy’ (having merit)
– Active.
The Good = happiness; what is happiness?
• Is it freedom from pain?
• Is it the opposite of whatever state in which one
finds oneself?
• Many believe it is gratification of desires:
Honor, being admired, respected
Wealth—’not the good we are seeking’ (1096a)
Having fun.
• Aristotle on wealth, health, intelligence, etc:
– Only instruments we use to pursue the good
– Not ends in themselves!
‘…the human good turns out
to be…
the soul’s activity that expresses
virtue’ (NE, 1098a20)
You are not born virtuous;
You must become virtuous.