Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, Books I and II
These discussion questions are meant to serve as jumping-off points for wider conversation about the issues and questions raised in the text.
In Book I of the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle begins his inquiry into what will come to be seen as the highest human good. He makes a number of striking claims which we should note, both because they are interesting in themselves and because they are specific elements of Aristotelian thought that will come to be rejected by Hobbes in the Leviathan. Here, Aristotle introduces us to the idea that all human action aims at an end that is non-instrumentally good. In doing so, he suggests that this must be the case, because otherwise desire would be infinite and satisfaction impossible (which is precisely what Hobbes will claim in the Leviathan). He also introduced the idea of politics as the “architectonic” or ruling art. Along the way, he examines the lives of pleasure, honor, and moneymaking, and finds them all deficient from the point of view of eudaimonia. Book I, then, ends with an account of the soul, and a turn toward virtue. Book II begins the examination of virtue as such.
What do you make of Aristotle’s account? Specifically, how do you take his claim that there is a non-instrumental good at which all human activities aim?
What of his conception of politics? In what ways is he right? How does his conception of politics compare to our own understanding (whatever that might be)? Is politics concerned with moral virtue? Should it be?
Does his analysis of the deficiencies of the three ways of life he discusses persuade you?
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, what do you make of the account of virtue as the mean relative to us? Do you think Aristotle is right to emphasize that virtue is the same thing for all of us, yet nonetheless different for all of us, and relative to our own conditions and circumstances?