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Topic #E45

Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics i.1-7

18 January 2002

Scribe: Ayca Hekimgil


These minutes were not spoken; for another version, go to the spoken minutes



Professor Hutchinson began our lecture with a note on doxography.  He stated that philosophers usually take 2 different approaches to finding and outlining truth.  The first is the doxographical approach and the second is the anti-doxographical approach, e.g., Descartes.  With respect to reading Aristotle, he suggested that we take more time really reading Aristotle to understand his long trains of arguments.  Students who ‘read’ him without really understanding it will take his arguments for something else which has been the case recently evident from students’ position papers.


As we can see when reading Aristotle there are no introductions or conclusions.  The professor said that Aristotle’s course of lectures seemed to have an audience and that it would make no sense to write introductions and conclusions to something that was so complete.  In fact, our professor thinks that this attribute means the 2 books have the ability to be integrated as a 2-part work. 


An ancient Socratic question as to human pursuit came up for students in position papers.  One says that politics is the superior pursuit to all other skills, and the second agrees with the first and adds that all other skills like rhetoric and technical skills, etc, report to politics.    Therefore the art that people in everyday life like Bush or Clinton aspire to is the highest of all human aspirations.  Yet this is weird.  The ideal realm says its reasonable to think that since each of us wants to have a successful life, and we are social, to do this by being detached by society isn’t exactly possible.  So success is a degree of social order.  A main part of creating social order is to instill a means for people to aspire to be successful.    Making society have a wide influence, large affects on people, and success easier to attain.  This also means that to one who succeeds in founding a society it is a good. 


Aristotle’s other book on ethics, the Eudemian Ethics, asks this as its first question: ‘how do you make your life a success?’  Aristotle discusses it in an abstract way, i.e. to the highest degree.  Professor Hutchinson quoted from his own work, the chapter on Aristotle’s ethics in the Cambridge Companion to Aristotle.  Being successful isn’t the same thing as having success.  To succeed in life you use what you have to make yourself a success (virtues) and you eventually become whole this way.  So success isn’t one particular thing that makes a person.  This leads to another question, what kinds of life are worth living?  There are many kinds of ways of life, for example, there is a childish way of life, adult way of life, partying way of life, or a dull way of life.  Which one is the best to lead? 


According to Aristotle, there are 3 ways to have a worthwhile life; enjoy refined pleasures, earn a good name for yourself, and understand and appreciate the universe.   These correspond to different types of work that gentleman were open to back then. There was the political and the scientific areas where people who worked could be a part.  Everyone will choose one of these ways to live their lives.  But 2 out of the 3 are the best ways of being successful.  Aristotle says success is the greatest thing to attain but whereas for animals and gods success is enjoyed quite differently for humans because for humans success comes in achievement.  We love to achieve things and we search for higher objectives to achieve all the time.  This apparently is what feeds our souls.  This apex is what we aim for all our lives if we find it.  The main thing is living well and faring well he says.  A rigorous demonstration is at (1097b15) where perfect objectives are described and the efficiency of these is mentioned although in highly abstract terms.  So the best way to live and make use of our reason is by aiming for objectives and receiving confirmation on them. 


But a successful life needs good fortune too.  People who are ugly or who have bad possessions are not as lucky as people with good fortune or political influence.  Unfortunately this is a main belief of Aristotle who believes that beautiful people are more likely to succeed in understanding the concept of God and reason as much as possible.  Basically to understand truths and become wise we have to be beautiful and blessed.  But why would anyone go for such a notion?  Even in Xenophon, fortunate people were referred to as gentleman.  Is that really the highest term of moral praise?  Of course in their position papers, students disagreed.  Hutchinson picked 2 stances taken by people of our class and began with the one that disagreed with all the beauty hokey poky.  “It’s a grim reality that this is so. Society has a double standard.  Beautiful people like celebrities get operations to enhance their beauty and then they do ‘good’ things like aid charities and host social events for important causes” but added that they probably wouldn’t do so if they didn’t look so good.  Another student who was somewhat on the other side of the fence with this issue thought that success was contingent on circumstances in one’s life.  One cannot be in control of their successes too much because some circumstances affect even the most virtuous men.  One must focus on what is in one’s control because to be upset at what is out of one’s control is foolish.  This last opinion expresses a Stoic point of view and it is argued with clarity in Seneca as well.  The fact is that there are demarcation zones and there are things that are beyond these boundaries that we have no control over.  So outside of these boundaries is chance and within the boundaries is control.   There is even evidence of some debate over this issue in ancient Athens where scholars explored these thoughts of Aristotle and also thoughts of Plato and the Stoics too.  Luck is contingent to happiness in ancient world theory. 


One person who exemplifies someone who was confident in his possessions and knew he deserved them was Pierre Trudeau according to our professor who met him. Professor Hutchinson said that although he was short Pierre Trudeau had a large stature.  Professor Hutchinson also maintained that although Pierre Trudeau had a good life, it fell short of happiness because of his failed marriage and also by the tragic loss of his sons.  His suffering was intensified because it was exposed so publicly.  He mentioned that Priam was the parallel case of this although Pierre Trudeau didn’t witness the burning of his own city; his sufferings were of a smaller and more NORMAL scale.  Many people lose their children.  But because of his public suffering Trudeau made this loss seem foreign. 


In closing we talked about how it is entirely in our control what we make of our opportunities and to be happy in life.  Aristotle tells us we have hope.  But to Hutchinson this definition of success is obscure.  Success is translated into blessed.  Part of today’s lecture was of Aristotle’s distinction of success and eudemonia namely that successful living equals having a good fairy at your side.