Reading Guide for the Nicomachean Ethics

PHIL 211 – Cosmos to Citizen

Dr. Miller

Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics is a radical change in format from Plato’s dialogues, but is equally as important in the history of philosophy.  Aristotle’s writing style is much more like a lecture (some scholars argue that each of the chapters are copies of his lecture notes rather than essays that he intended to publish) and will demand your full attention. 

Aristotle has a very different method of learning truth than his teacher Plato.  Aristotle usually studies every known answer to a problem, and then tries to determine which provides the ‘best’ solution to the problem.  Sometimes these answers are provided by the majority; other times they are provided by a particular expert.  Regardless, Aristotle considers all possible solutions – and often selects the solution that is the most ‘middle of the road.’  Like Plato, Aristotle is fond of examples.  As you read the following selections from the Nicomachean Ethics make a special effort to understand his examples.  Also, try to make up your own to illustrate his point.  Doing so will help test whether you understand Aristotle’s point. 

Also, be aware that Aristotle often goes back to previously studied topics, to re-examine the answer he initially gave.  Some students find this tendency frustrating (‘just tell us what your answer is!’ they say); others find this approach to be wonderful, for they see it as an honest and complete search for truth.  Either way, stick with it.  Aristotle’s answer usually is not given in just one line of text in one chapter.  Other chapters must also be consulted to find his complete answer.

All of Aristotle’s works are divided into Becker numbers (for example, 1109a25).  Use these margin numbers when making reference to any of Aristotle’s works, and not the page number in your edition.

Reading Questions for NE Book I.1-5:

Chapter 1:  What is this good?  What does Aristotle mean when he writes that some things/pursuits are subordinate to others things/pursuits? 

Chapter 2: Aristotle writes that “if we know it, we are more likely, like archers who have a target to aim at, to hit the right mark.”  What is the ‘it’ we must know?  What is Aristotle trying to prove here?

Chapter 3: What do you think of Aristotle’s claim that he cannot provide an exact definition of the good?  Is he coping out?  Aristotle claims in this chapter that “. . . a youth is not a suitable student of political science.”  Is this true?  Are young people unable to make decisions in accordance with reason?

Chapter 4: Why must we be brought up in good habits?

Chapter 5: How does Aristotle prove that our goal (happiness) is not found in pleasure, honor, or wealth?


Reading Questions for NE Book I.7-11:


Chapter 7: Why does Aristotle say that happiness (and not honor, pleasure, understanding, or any other virtue) is the one thing that is complete without any qualification?  What is the function of human beings?  How important is it to do this function well?  Why?  What then is true happiness?  Can one be truly happy is only happy for a short time?


Chapter 8: So, what are the three types of good?  How important are goods to happiness?  Is one of these goods necessarily, or absolutely better than the others?  Can you be happy if you lack these goods?


Chapter 9: So, is happiness acquired through learning, habit, a god, or chance?  Make sure you have found Aristotle’s answer.  Why is it impossible for animals and children to be happy?


Chapter 10: Aristotle considers a paradox in this chapter.  Who is Priam?  Why does his life make it appear as if only a dead man can be happy?  How does Aristotle solve this paradox?


Chapter 11: How can the actions of family and friends influence someone’s happiness?


Reading Questions for NE Book I.13 and Book II.1-2:


Book I, Chapter 13: What is the goal/end of politics?  Hence, what must the politician understand about the human person?  What are the two parts of the human soul?  When is the soul ‘paralyzed’?  What is a virtue?  Provide examples of the two types of virtue.


Book II, Chapter 1: Are we good naturally?  Or, do we learn to be good?  What makes us virtuous?  What makes us non-virtuous?  How does Aristotle sum up this chapter?


Chapter 2: Which would you rather possess: knowledge of virtue or virtue?  Why?  Why are extremes bad?  Why is the middle path (the mean) preferred?  What is the mean in regard to courage?  Temperance?  The life of a student?


Reading Questions for NE Book II.3-9:


Chapter 3: What role does pleasure and pain has in our moral education?  Explain. 


Chapter 4:  When is a person acting virtuously?  Is it enough to simply be doing the right thing?  Does that make you virtuous?  Explain.  How important are models for those who want to change their character?  Is it enough to know what to do, but not do it? 


Chapter 5: What is the difference between feelings, capacities and states?  Which is associated with virtue?  Can a person be sort of virtuous? 


Chapter 6: What does virtue cause a person to be?  Can virtues be relative?  That is, is it possible that what one person does is considered virtuous but that if a different person did the same thing he or she would not be considered virtuous?  Explain. 


Chapter 7: Each example here is intended to show that the virtue is often the mean between two extremes.  Illustrate this principle with another example of a virtue not listed here.


Chapter 8: Which is always worst: an extreme or a deficiency?  Explain.  Why does Aristotle say that one must consider both the object and the individual person to answer that question? 


Chapter 9: Why is it hard work to be excellent?  That is, what must you get right in order to be considered virtuous?  If you can’t achieve the middle path, which path should you avoid?  What is the example of the bent stick illustrating?  Have you ever successfully dropped a bad habit and picked-up a good one?  How did you do it?


Reading Questions for NE Book III.1 and Book III.5:


Chapter 1: What is the difference between voluntary, involuntary, and nonvoluntary actions?  When is an action mixed?  Given these definitions, when do we praise or blame someone for what they do or do not do?  Must you always do what you are compelled to do?  When are people responsible for their actions?  Does ignorance remove responsibility?  Always?  Explain with an example.  What does it make clear when a person grieves or feels pain after doing something?


Chapter 5: Aristotle is arguing here that since it is in our power to choose what type of person we want to be (virtuous or not virtuous) wickedness is voluntary and should be blamed.  How does this fit with praising or blaming others?  Why doesn’t ignorance (let’s say from drunkenness) remove responsibility and guilt?  When are people inattentive (another translation I have refers to these people living a ‘slack’ life)?  How does Aristotle use sports and illness to prove his point here?



Copyright (c) 2007 Michael R. Miller.  Last Modified 01/15/2007