Aristotle’s Ethics

A Course with Professor Thomas Patrick Burke

Six Mondays, September 28 to November 2, 2009

Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics was the first systematic treatise on morality.  It has been the foundation of two thousand years of Western ethical philosophy. If Western civilization has been different from other civilizations, a good part of that must be credited to Aristotle. He argues that if we are to achieve personal fulfillment in life it is necessary to have the right kind of character, to be the right kind of person and have the right habits of thinking and acting.  The first step in this direction, he says, is to be well brought up. For the rest, it is up to us. Being the right kind of person, accustomed to doing the right thing, means being habitually just in our dealings with others, habitually courageous in the face of fear and death, habitually temperate in our use of material goods, habitually generous, truthful and good-tempered. These virtues are all qualities of our will;  but the ethical will is a will guided by reason.  For just as the eye is made for seeing, and is in a good condition when it sees well; and every other part of the body has its own distinctive function, and is in a good condition when it performs that function well; so also man has a distinctive function as a man, and will be in a good condition as a human being when he performs his function well. That function is given him by his power of reason.  A good life is one lived in accord with reason.

We focused especially on Aristotle’s general theory of morality and his treatment of justice, both of which are very relevant today; and also his discussion of friendship.