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AristotlePhilosophy 302: Ethics
Aristotle, "What is the Life of Excellence?"

Abstract:  Aristotle explain how human beings can lead lives of excellence as activity in accordance with practical and theoretical reason.

1. According to Aristotle, what is happiness (eudaimonia)? How does Aristotle's definition of happiness differ from the account given by most people?

2. What does Aristotle mean when he writes that the good for man is self-sufficient?

3. How does Aristotle prove that the final good for human beings is "activity of the soul in accordance with [the best and most complete] virtue"?

4. Explain and trace out some examples of Aristotle's Doctrine of the Mean.

5. What is the difference between theoretical and practical knowledge? Which kind is the more important for Aristotle?

6. According to Aristotle, how are the habits and character of excellence in human beings attained?

7.  What is the relation between the passions and the virtues according to Aristotle?


1.  According to Aristotle, what is happiness (eudaimonia)? How does Aristotle's definition of happiness differ from the account given by most people?

"The god" or best good is that which is desired for its own sake and for the sake which we desire all other ends or goods. For human beings, eudaemonia is activity of the soul in accordance with arete (excellence, virtue, or what something is good for"). Eudaemonia is characterized by living well and doing well in the affairs of the world.

Moral virtue is not the end of life for it can go with inactivity, misery, and unhappiness. Happiness, the end of life, that to which all things aim, is activity in accordance with reason (the arete or peculiar excellence of a person). Happiness is an activity involving both moral and intellectual arete. Some external goods are necessary in order to exercise that activity. But happiness cannot be identified with pleasure, wealth, or honor—unlike what most people think.

The good of human beings cannot be answered with the exactitude of a mathematical problem since mathematics starts with general principles and argues to conclusions.

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2.  What does Aristotle mean when he writes that the good for man is self-sufficient?

That good is desired for its own sake. The good involves a teleological system that involves actions. The final good for human beings is happiness; it is good-in-itself, the end of action, and hence self-sufficient.

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3.  How does Aristotle prove that the final good for human beings is "activity of the soul in accordance with [the best and most complete] virtue"?

 Happiness is the end of human nature; it is not a disposition for then one could be happy even though nothing went well.  Thus, the final good must be an activity desirable in itself—i.e., virtue, and, indeed, the highest virtue, the contemplative life (theoria).

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4.  Explain and trace out some examples of Aristotle's Doctrine of the Mean.

Virtue, arete, or excellence is defined as a mean between two extremes of excess and defect in regard to a feeling or action as the practically wise person would determine it. The mean cannot be calculated a priori. The mean is relative to the individual and circumstances. 

For example, the level of courage necessary for a person is different for a philosophy teacher, a commando, and a systems programmer. The amount and kind of food a person eats is different for a ballerina and a weight-lifter.

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5.  What is the difference between theoretical and practical knowledge? Which kind is the more important for Aristotle?

Phronesis or practical knowledge involves the virtues and  is the ability to see the right thing to do in the circumstances present. Notice, especially, Aristotle's theory does not imply ethical relativism because there are appropriate standards of the moral virtues and the rightness of action. Political science would be an example of this kind of knowledge..

Sophia or theoretical wisdom in intellectual or philosophical activity.  This is the highest faculty of human beings. Astronomy would be an example of this kind of knowledge.

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6.  According to Aristotle, how are the habits and character of excellence in human beings attained?

People have a natural capacity for good character, and this capacity is developed through practice. A capacity does not come first (i.e., it does not precede an action)—it is developed through practice. Arete is a disposition developed out of a capacity through the proper exercise of that capacity. Habits are developed through acting; a person's character is the structure of habits and is formed by what that person does.

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7.  What is the relation between the passions and the virtues according to Aristotle?

In both, states of character arise from actions of that corresponding kind. Hence, habits from a person's youth make a great difference in the excellence of that person's life. 

Passions are usually accompanied by pleasure or pain and are not praised nor blamed as are the virtues. The virtues, unlike the passions, represent states of character.

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8.  In the Nicomachean Ethics, does Aristotle trace out a method whereby human beings can change their character?  If so, what are the main outlines of his program for change?

Habits are developed through acting; a person's character is the structure of habits and is formed by the actions the person chooses to perform. The vicious circle which is preeminent—(i.e., are actions or dispositions ontologically prior?)—is broken by Aristotle's distinction between acts which create good dispositions and acts which flow from the good disposition once it has been created. 

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Recommended Sources

Literature on Aristotle:  Literature on Aristotle and Virtue Ethics A survey on Internet resources on Aristotle and virtue ethics, including RealAudio lectures and interviews. 
Aristotle's Ethics
:  A summary of Aristotle's ethics (this Website).

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