Aristotle Politics Essay Questions

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Reading Questions for Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics

Prepared by Tom Bowen


Whether or not Aristotle is difficult to read, or more difficult or easier to read than Plato, is a matter of personal preference and judgment. What is indubitable, however, is that Aristotle is a very different writer than Plato. Plato writes in dialogue, where his own voice is hidden and requires some work to unearth (if this is possible at all). Aristotle, on the other hand, writes in "essay" form and is clearly the author and speaker in his texts. But, unlike "contemporary" or modern writers, the texts we have of Aristotle were not necessarily intended for publication to a wide audience. So, often, what we see is that Aristotle is more interested in exploring a particular problem or formulating a particular question than in coming up with a specific answer or set of answers. Thus, often times his writing will jump from topic to topic (in an apparently unorganized manner --though a careful look can discern a pattern) and also at times his writing will lead to "blind alleys" and potentially unsolvable dilemmas. So, reading Aristotle requires some care. The following questions are designed primarily to point you towards specific parts of Aristotle's texts that I think are important. All citations to Aristotle's texts will refer to the "index" numbers that run along the margins of the text.


1.      How does Aristotle come to conclude that there must be a “highest” good (1094a5-15)? What are the limitations of ethics and politics as sciences? How does Aristotle define (provisionally) happiness and the Good? How is happiness acquired? Why do you think Aristotle includes the discussion of “death” in chapter 11?

2.      What is the relation between “virtue” and habit? How is virtue defined? How does pleasure figure into all of this?

3.      Explain the distinction between the different types of actions that Aristotle discusses in the opening chapters of BIII. How do issues of praise and blame attach to these types of actions and our attempts to distinguish them? How is this discussion important for understanding a life of virtue? Or, how does this help us live a life of virtue?

4.      Explain the concepts of choice, deliberation, and rational wish that Aristotle develops in C3-5 of BIII. What are the types of things we can deliberate about? What are the types of things that we can choose? What is outside the realm of choice? How is wish different from choice and deliberation? Again, how does this relate back to the practical end of living a good life? What is it we have learned about the “art” or “craft” of living?

5.      (BVII) What are continence and incontinence? (There are six varieties.) What is the problem that incontinence poses for Aristotle (really, for almost all Greek thinkers particularly Aristotle and Plato)? What is Aristotle’s solution to the problem?

6.      What are the three views of pleasure that Aristotle discusses at the end of BVII? What are the arguments that he analyzes here? What, in the end, do we learn about Aristotle’s conception of pleasure and its role in good/virtuous life? Why do you think Aristotle discusses pleasure here at the end of BVII?

7.      Why does the issue of “friendship” (Philia/Eros) arise in the NE? What are the basic issues or questions that Aristotle thinks needs to be addressed here (note that Aristotle spends two books—VIII & IX—dealing with this concept)? What are the three basic types of friendship and how do they relate to one another? What is the basic “model” or structure of friendship?

8.      Can vicious or bad people be or have friends? If so, in what form or under what heading? What is the status of goodness or virtue in friendship?

9.      How does friendship relate to broader types of community—family, city? That is, consider what Aristotle says at the beginning of C9 B8 about the relation of friendship and justice. How does this correspond to the types of governments and the nature of justice in general?

10.  What are the basic principles of friendship in relations between equals and the basic principles in relations between unequals? (C13-14)

11.  What do we learn about the nature of friendship from Aristotle’s discussion of the dissolution of the relation in the opening chapters of B9? Under what conditions do friendships generally end? What are the questions that arise here?

12.  In B9 C4-8 Aristotle starts an analysis of the internal structure of friendship. Specifically, he is interested in the relation of the self to itself through the friend. So, what is the role of self-love (or self regard) in friendship? What does it mean when Aristotle says that the friend is “another self”? How does this relate to the issues of goodwill (C5) and concord (C6)?

13.  Why do we need friends to be happy? C9-12

14.  BX begins with another discussion of pleasure—how does this relate to the discussion of pleasure at the end of BVII? Is it consistent? How does pleasure relate to virtuous activity?

15.  What is Aristotle’s final claim about the nature of a happy life and, more importantly, the type of life that is the best or happiest? (This relates all the way back to the discussion of the three types of life in BI.) What is the conflict (or potential conflict—is there a conflict?) between the political and the contemplative life? Can humans be happy in contemplation?



Aristotle Assignments

For 4/22 and 4/24.Readings for next week:

Aristotle's cosmology. Read all of the selections from On the Heavens (aka De Caelo) in the Ackrill reader, i.e., DC I 2, 9, 10 (281b3-33), II 12 (292a10-b25), III 6, and the paper "Aristotle's 'Cosmic Nose' Argument for the Uniqueness of the World," that I e-mailed you.


Explain and evaluate one of Aristotle's arguments in the readings, for the positions described below. Since Aristotle's cosmology has been falsified, try to be charitable: are there points he makes in the course of his argumentation that hold up or are worthwhile, even if his conclusions are not acceptable? You can also approach these topics by trying to talk about how what Aristotle says in his cosmology sheds light on the other parts of his philosophy we have studied thus far, or contradict/stand in tension with other areas of his philosophy.

  • What it is that makes a simple body a simple body, and why there must be simple bodies.(DC I 2)
  • Why there must be a fifth element, with a natural circular motion, in addition to the traditional four elements. (DC I 2)
  • Why the world must be unique (DC I 9 and the e-mailed paper).
  • Why the world is ungenerated and indestructible. (DC I 10)
  • What the nature of stellar motions is, and why this motion is perfect. (DC II 12)
  • Why the four elements are not eternal. (DC III 6)

For 4/15 and 4/17.

Readings: selections from the Politics in Ackrill's book. (Book I chapters 1-7; book III chapters 1-4 for Tuesday; book VII chapters 1-3 and 13-15; book VIII chapters 1-3 for Thursday). Also re-read the selections from the end of NE book X that deal with politics.

Papers. Pretty wide open--set out and discuss something Aristotle says in the readings. But here are a few specific things we'll be looking at:

  • Explain and evaluate Aristotle's story about how states came into existence.
  • Why does Aristotle think that the state (in some sense) is prior to the individual? Is this doctrine in conflict with his assertion that individual people are substances?
  • In what sense are humans political animals, according to Aristotle? Explain and evaluate his arguments.
  • What is the role of the state in making its citizens virtuous? Do you agree that this is a legitimate task of the state?
  • What are natural slaves, according to Aristotle? If there were such people, why does he think that it would be OK to enslave them? Evaluate.
  • Explain the distinction between human virtue and civic virtue, and why Aristotle thinks that civic virtues are relative to the type of state one lives in. Evaluate some part of what he says; e.g., does this make his theory relativistic, and if so, in what way, and is this problematic?
  • Explain and evaluate what Aristotle says about the best type of regime.

4/10. Continue discussion of book X, and bring Aquinas into the mix too. Re-read Tuesday readings, and also look at:

Readings from Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles, book III, "God the End of Creatures." Chapters 2,3, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 24, 25, 34, 37, 38, 39, 40, 47, 48, 61.

(If you don't want to click on each of the links above to individual chapters, go to here for the table of contents of the Summa Contra Gentiles and scroll down to Book III. You may also want to do this if you'd like to see what some of the surrounding chapters are that we're skipping. Some of those might be useful to look at to answer some of your questions.)

Paper: Either respond to one of the Tuesday topics (esp. looking at Nagel), or, for Aquinas...

Lay out and evaluate Aquinas' argument for one of the following:

  • All things are directed to one end, which is God.
  • How God can be said to be the "end" of inanimate things? More generally, in what sense is God the 'end' of things, and how can things imitate the divine goodness?
  • Knowing God is the end of every intellectual substance (such as humans).
  • Human happiness consists in knowing God.
  • Attaining (perfect) happiness is impossible in this life.
  • Knowing God allows us to partake in eternal life.
One useful way of approaching the above questions is to see Aquinas as working within a basically Aristotelian metaphysical and ethical position but still wanting to maintain the centrality of an afterlife in attaining happiness.
For 4/8. Book X, chapters 6-end.

Papers: Pretty wide open. Any of the following:

  • Explain and evaluate one of Aristotle's arguments in favor of happiness being contemplation.
  • Is the sketch of happiness given here consistent, or inconsistent, with the picture of happiness given in the rest of the NE? If inconsistent, which do you find preferable, and why?
  • Explain and evaluate one of Nagel's arguments in favor of the conception of happiness he attributes to Aristotle.
  • Anything else from the readings.

For Tues 4/1, Thurs 4/3. Reading Nicomachean Ethics Books 8 and 9, and Julia Annas' paper, "Self-Love in Aristotle."

Note: The Ackrill book is missing much of books 8 and 9, but there is a decent translation available here.


  1. Aristotle make the following claims: there are three types of friendship, the friendships of utility, pleasure, and virtue. The first two types are unstable. The friendship of virtue is the only stable type of friendship; it is complete, and it can only occur between virtuous people. Explain what these three types of friendship are, and his arguments for the claims above. If you disagree with any of them, say which ones, and why. (Reading, NE Bk 8 chapter 3)
  2. Aristotle claims that the virtuous person loves himself and is a friend to himself (or at least takes the same attitude toward himself as toward his friend), whereas the base person is not a friend to himself. Why does Aristotle think these things? Do you agree with him? Why or why not? (Reading NE Bk 9 chapter 4).
  3. Anything else, e.g., Annas' claims about the sense in which a good friend loves himself.

3/25 and 3/27.

Reading: NE book VII chapters 11-14, NE book X chapters 1-5, and Julia Annas, "Aristotle on Pleasure and Goodness." Papers:

  1. Explain and evaluate one of Aristotle's arguments for one of the following claims:
    • Pleasure is good.
    • Pleasure is (in some sense) the supreme good.
    • Pleasures differ in kind.
    • Some pleasures are bad.
    • The pleasures the good man feels are real pleasures.
  2. Explain and evaluate one of Aristotle's definitions of pleasure.
  3. Explain and evaluate one of Annas' defenses of one of Aristotle's claims about pleasure.

3/20. Reading: NE book VII chapters 1-10, and Burnyeat on Aristotle on learning to be good (in the packet). Papers: Issler 6020, Chapparel 4020.

Topic is pretty open: explain and evaluate some part of what Aristotle says in the reading, e.g.,

  • The nature of incontinence
  • Why people are either continent or incontinent
  • The sense in which the incontinent persons 'knows' what he should do
  • Brutishness, and how it differs from vice
  • Anything Burnyeat says on Aristotle on learning to be good.

3/18. No new reading. We will do the material for 3/13. Paper: Jason Beachy.
For 3/13. We may continue the discussion of NE VI, depending on how class goes on Tuesday. Then move on to Aristotle's philosophy of science. Readings:

The selections from Posterior Analytics in the Ackrill reader (Posterior Analytics I 1-4, 10, 13 II 1-2, 8-10, 12, 19), and R.J. Hankinson, "Philosophy of Science" in the course packet; concentrate especially on the first few pages (through p. 113), but read the whole thing.

Papers: (Wheeler)

  • What does Aristotle mean when he claims that understanding is the result of demonstration, and why does he believe this? Explain and evaluate.
  • Why does Aristotle think that not all knowledge is demonstrative? Explain and evaluate his argument.
  • Explain what the example of non-twinkling planets is supposed to show, and evaluate whether it does show this.
  • Explain and evaluate Aristotle's description of how one explains an eclipse such that we come to have understanding of it.
  • Explain Aristotle�s distinction between things that are 'more familiar and prior' simpliciter and 'more familiar and prior� to us. Is this a legimiate distinction?
  • Explain and evaluate Aristotle's notion of definition, as explained in PA II 8-10.
  • How do we come to know principles (PAII 19)? Explain and evaluate.

3/11. Reading. Nicomachean Ethics book VI. Paper (Brad Summers).

Pretty wide open. Explain and evaluate one of Aristotle's claims. For instance:

  • The nature of any one of the intellectual virtues
  • The differences between intellectual virtues and 'moral' virtues
  • The value of the intellectual virtues
  • Why one can have the intellectual virtues and not have the moral virtues and vice-versa
  • The relationship between prudence and the moral virtues

For 2/28. Continue on the 2/26 material, paper topics as for 2/26 (Bryn Snyder, Jane Bledsoe)
For 2/26. Readings: Metaphysics Epsilon (VI), Physics II 4-6, short selection of mine on aitia, arche, and the coincidental that I e-mailed you. NB: some of the material from last Thursday (metaphysics Alpha) we'll also be discussing.

Paper topics (Wade Smith), either look at Alpha (see below), or:

  • Do you agree with Aristotle that some things have no explanation?
  • O�Keefe claims that Aristotle�s discussion of the coincidental has no anti-determinist implications. Explain why this is so and whether you agree with this.
  • Aristotle claims that certain events are simply coincidental, due to luck, or due to the �automatic.� Explain and evaluate one of his arguments for this claim.

For 2/21. Re-read 2/19 readings. Paper topics, same as before, or explain and evaluate one of Aristotle's claims in Metaphysics Alpha (either as made by Aristotle himself, or Lear's interpretation/explanation of him). These can include:
  • The distinction between humans and other animals.
  • How art and/or understanding arise.
  • The role leisure plays in the arts.
  • Why useless knowledge is superior to useful knowledge.
  • The relationship between wisdom and wonder.
  • The nature of metaphysics (as discussed in Gamma).
For 2/19 and 2/21 (readings and papers are for the whole week).

Please read the selections from Metaphysics Alpha (chapters 1-2), Beta (chapter 1), and Gamma (chapters 1-3, chapter 4 1004b35-1006a28, 1008b2-1009a5, chapter 5 1009a6-16, 1010b1-29) in the Ackrill book, plus the selection from Jonathan Lear in the course packet. Papers (Tuesday Kristina Pope, Thurs. Vick Smith, 6020 Jason Outlaw):

  1. Aristotle says that he can refute the person who denies the PNC if the person simply 'says something.' Explain how this refutation is supposed to work, and say whether you think it does work.
  2. Aristotle says that the fact that supposed deniers of PNC can act shows that they really believe PNC. Explain and evaluate his argument.
  3. Lear considers the question of whether Aristotle's argument for PNC is question-begging. Briefly explain why you think Aristotle's argument either is or is not question-begging, and, if it is, whether it's question-begging in an unacceptable manner.
  4. Explain and evaluate something else Aristotle says about PNC.

For 2/10. Paper: Kendall Lotze. Reading: photocopied selection from Cicero distributed on Thursday, plus re-read Thursday's readings.

Paper topics. Any from last Thursday are OK, plus:

  1. Explain why Carneades thinks that PB has no fatalist consequences. Do you agree with him?
  2. Explain why Carneades thinks that not even Apollo can have knowledge of everything that will happen in the future. Do you agree with him?
  3. Explain why Chrysippus thinks that the 'Idle Argument' fails, and why not even causal determinism has fatalistic consequences. Do you agree?
For 2/7. Readings: Aristotle, On Interpretation chapter 9 and Sorabji's article on Tomorrow's Sea Battle. (Also, quickly skim through the previous chapters of On Interpretation to get a sense of the context. I will probably e-mail you some additional, later responses to the fatalist argument presented in De Int 9.)

Papers (Little, Steven W.; Dan Issler for 6020):

  1. Briefly explain the fatalist argument presented in de Int 9: why do unacceptable consequences follow from the universal applicability of the Principle of Bivalence, and what are these consequences? How does Aristotle rebut the fatalist? Do you agree that these unacceptable consequences follow from the Principle of Bivalence?
  2. Explain in what sense Sorabji thinks my actions can have an effect on the past, and why he thinks this. Do you agree with his position and arguments?

For 2/5. Reading: Nicomachean Ethics Book III, esp. chapters 1-5, plus the reading by Bostock on the course packet.

Paper (Lenzer, James C.)

  1. Explain & summarize, in your own words, the basic idea behind Aristotle's definition of what is voluntary in NE III 1. Why does Aristotle think that "pleasant things and fine things" do not force us to do what we do? (And what does this mean?) Does Aristotle's definition appear correct? (Some additional questions to think about, or write on: Can you think of any counterexamples to this definition? Does Aristotle's definition seem compatible, or incompatible, with causal determinism?)
  2. Explain and evaluate one of the 'excusing conditions' Aristotle discusses in NE III 1.
  3. In NE III 5 Aristotle says that "[since] we cannot refer actions back to other principles beyond those in ourselves, then it follows that whatever has its principle in us is itself up to us and voluntary," and he supports this conclusion by pointing to practices of punishment. However, as Aristotle notes, it might be objected that (i) one's actions are the inevitable outcome of one's character, and (ii) everybody aims at what appears good to him, and a person does not control what appears good to him; instead, his character controls what appears good to him. How does Aristotle respond to these objections? Does Aristotle's response appear adequate? Why or why not? (Additional possible question to think or write about: do you think his response is compatibilist, or libertarian, or neither?)
For 1/31. Read NE book III, chapters 6-12, and Book IV.

Paper (Vicki Horwitz).

Pretty wide open. Either explain and evaluate one of Aristotle's arguments regarding the virtues of character (e.g., courage), or a stated related to a virtue of character (e.g., shame). Or, if you wish, write about what Aristotle's discussions of particular virtues reveals about the more general claims he makes regarding the virtues (in book II) or happiness (in book I).

For 1/29. Re-read the assignment for 1/24. Paper: Allen Armstrong; write on one of the 1/24 topics, other than topic #1 (as Jason Beachy wrote on that one).
For 1/24. Read Nicomachean Ethics, book II, and Urmson's article in the course packet on the mean.

Papers (Jason Beachy, for 6020 session, Jane Bledsoe, either from 1/24 or 1/22):

  1. (see NE II.3 in particular). Aristotle says that, to be virtuous, it isn't enough to do the right thing; one must also take pleasure (or at least not feel pain) in doing the right thing. Why does he think this? Consider to the following two cases: Two people have borrowed a great deal of money from a friend, who now needs it back, but both are poor, and returning it would be a hardship. The first returns it easily, and is happy to have the opportunity to pay his friend back. The second really doesn't want to return it, and has to struggle with himself, but with a great effort of will he manages to overcome his reluctance and return the money, because he knows that is what he ought to do. Which person is better? Which person is more praiseworthy? What would Aristotle say, and do you agree with him? Why or why not?
  2. "The golden mean." Aristotle says that virtue is a mean between extremes. What does he mean by this, and why does he think it? In what sense is virtue a mean, and in what sense isn't it? Do you agree with Aristotle? (See NE II.5 and II.6. in particular, and NE II 7 to see the application of this doctrine to particular virtues.)
  3. Urmson defends Aristotle's doctrine of the mean against several objections, which he says are based on misunderstandings of the doctrine; correctly interpreted, he says, Aristotle's doctrine is (more or less) right. Explain one of the things that Urmson says, and then evaluate it, with regard either to (i) whether it is a correct interpretation of Aristotle, or (ii) whether it is, in itself, correct about the nature of the virtues.

For 1/22. Re-read the readings for 1/17, and write on one of those topics. Paper, James Summers.

Possible bonus paper topics:

  1. Pick out something from the article 'what sort of cause is Aristotle's final cause?" and write on that (explain and evaluate whatever you wish).
  2. Does Aristotle's ethics (as expounded in NE I)--the 'function argument' in particular--depend upon Aristotle's metaphysics? Why or why not?

For 1/17.
  • Physics, book II, chapters 1-3, 7-9
  • Parts of Animals, I 1, 5; II 1.
  • From the course packet, "What Kind of Cause is Aristotle�s Final Cause?"
Possible paper topics (pick one, although earlier would be better, Christopher Capparell. For 6020, paper is from Tim Clewell, pick any topic from 1/15 or 1/17):
  1. What does Aristotle mean when he says that certain things (like human beings) exist 'by nature,' and why does he believe this? Explain briefly in your own words, and evaluate some part of what he says.
  2. Explain Aristotle's doctrine of the '4 causes' in your own words, and why he thinks that there 4 different types of explanation. Evaluate some part of what he says.
  3. Why does Aristotle think that teleological explanations of natural phenomena are indispensable? Explain and evaluate his arguments.
  4. Look at Parts of Animals 640b5 ff. in particular, in light of Aristotle's discussion of the four causes in the Physics. Why does Aristotle maintain that looking at the material cause alone is insufficient when trying to understand organisms, and why were the accounts of e.g., Democritus inadequate? Do you agree with Aristotle? Why or why not?

For 1/15. Re-read book I of the Nicomachean Ethics (excluding chapter 6), and read Irwin's article on Aristotle and Solon.

Possible paper topics (Jaye Spangler; pick one):

  1. Why isn't having virtue sufficient for happiness, according to Aristotle? (Look at chapter 5 in particular.) What *is* the relationship between virtue and happiness? (See chapters 7 and 13 in particular.) What do you think of Aristotle's arguments?
  2. Why does Aristotle think that happiness can't be the same as pleasure, or a life of pleasure? Do you agree with him? Why or why not? See chapters 5 and 7 in particular.
  3. Explain and comment on Aristotle's own conception of what eudaimonia is (based upon the notion of there being a human 'function').
  4. Why does Aristotle think that post-mortem events can have an impact on one's happiness, contra Solon? Explain and evaluate what he says.

For 1/10. Please read:
  • Nicomachean Ethics book I, excluding chapter 6. We'll be concentrating on chapters (i)-(viii), but please read the whole thing.
  • Jonanthan Barnes' introduction to the life and writings of Aristotle, available in the course packet.
  • You may also want to take a look at the some descriptions of what an argument is, of vocabulary describing arguments, and of some good and bad arguments, as I'll be presupposing familiarity with this sort of material.
Here are some reading response paper topics that you might want to think about as you're doing the reading, as we'll be exploring these questions in our class. Papers:
  1. Why isn't having virtue sufficient for happiness, according to Aristotle? (Look at chapter 5 in particular. ) What *is* the relationship between virtue and happiness? (See chapters 7 and 13 in particular.) What do you think of Aristotle's arguments?
  2. Why does Aristotle think that happiness can't be the same as pleasure, or a life of pleasure? Do you agree with him? Why or why not? See chapters 5 and 7 in particular.
  3. Explain and comment on Aristotle's own conception of what eudaimonia is (based upon the notion of there being a human 'function').
  4. Why does Aristotle think that post-mortem events can have an impact on one's happiness, contra Solon? Explain and evaluate what he says.
Please also post a question or comment to the class bulletin board on uLearn.
Return to the course web site.
Return to the main page.

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